Einstein Biography by Walter Isaacson

Just finished Einstein by Walter Isaacson, a well-written biography that makes use of newly available private letters and papers. Some things that I learned…

Einstein did well in nearly all his subjects right through high school, except for French, and exceptionally well in math and physics. He loved to sail, but could not swim. During a trip to Asia he wrote to his sons “Of all the people I have met, I like the Japanese most, as they are modest, intelligent, considerate, and have a feel for art.” He was not so sanguine about the Orthodox Jews praying at the Western Wall: “A pitiful sight of men with a past but without a future.”

At the age of 51, in 1930, Einstein addressed the Caltech student body, saying that science had thus far done more harm than good, pointing out the military “means to poison and multilate one another” and the peacetime making of lives “hurried and uncertain”. “It has enslaved men to machines” by making them work “long wearisome hours mostly without joy in their labor.”

Einstein started life as a non-observant Jew, but discovered a Jewish identity from the Catholic kids at his school in Munich, writing “anti-Semitism was prevalent” and “physical attacks and insults on the way home from school were frequent, but for the most part not too vicious.” He abandoned all Jewish observance upon moving to Italy and Switzerland, where Jew-hatred was less common. A natural-born contrarian, he picked up an increased identification with things Jewish as the Nazi Party grew more popular among his Berlin neighbors and colleagues. He ended up assisting the early Zionists with fundraising and with the founding of Hebrew University (in Jerusalem) and was even offered the presidency of the new state of Israel (a largely ceremonial job). He died with notes for a speech celebrating Israel’s 7th anniversary on his night table.

Einstein’s father and uncle were electrical engineers, but the field did not appeal to him: “The thought of having to expend my creative energy on things that make practical everyday life more refined, with a bleak capital gain as the goal, was unbearable to me.” [Ed: this was at a time when they probably didn’t even have capital gains taxes in Europe!] When his son Hans said that he wanted to be an engineer, Einstein replied “I think it’s a digusting idea”. (Hans ultimately became a professor of engineering at UC Berkeley).

Einstein did well at university, but antagonized some of his professors to the point that he could not get a recommendation for a job. He was the only graduate from his department not to find work, despite the fact that Einstein sent applications to nearly every academic employer throughout Europe. Through intense lobbying by a well-connected friend, Einstein was finally able to land the coveted job at the Swiss patent office. He ended up preferring the patent office because (1) the pay was better, (2) you could concentrate on publishing quality rather than quantity. “An academic career in which a person is forced to produce scientific writings in great amounts creates a danger of intellectual superficiality,” Einstein wrote.

Einstein fell in love with the one nerd girl at his school, Mileva Maric, a Serbian whom he would ultimately marry. They had an accidental daughter out of wedlock who was given away in Serbia to avoid a scandal. The adult identity of this daughter has never been definitively established.

Einstein disfigured his original general relativity equations with a cosmological constant in order to make them fit the prevailing assumption that the universe was static. Astronomers eventually concluded that the universe was expanding, which rendered the constant unnecessary. Subsequent observations of an accelerating expansion rendered the constant necessary again.

World War I sounded like a remarkably ordinary experience for Germans not serving in the military and for Albert Einstein in particular. He worked in his office in Berlin. He vacationed at the beach or in Switzerland. He divorced his wife, agreeing to pay her any future Nobel Prize proceeds, and took up with his cousin Elsa. Things got tough after the war, with the devaluation of the mark. In early 1920, Einstein wrote “In Germany today hatred of the Jews has taken on horrible expressions.” Groups formed to “purge German physics of Jewish influences” and their accusations were enough to justify a headline in Henry Ford’s Dearborn Independent asking “Is Einstein a Plagiarist?”

German political life did not get more congenial for Jews and by 1933 Einstein was forced to leave, never to return. “As long as I have any choice in the matter, I shall live only in a country where civil liberty, tolerance, and equality of all citizens before the law prevail,” he said. “These conditions do not exist in Germany at the present time.” Einstein would only have last another few months as Jewish teachers and students were quickly banned from universities.

Einstein did not believe that E=mc^2 had practical value for producing energy or making bombs. He was surprised that the atom turned out to be easily split. He was a passionate, though rather ineffective, advocate for the atomic bomb project when he assumed that Germany was building one too. Isaacson describes Einstein, Teller, and Szilard trying to persuade Charles Lindbergh to help in lobby the President: “All three of the refugee Jews were apparently unaware that the aviator had been spending time in Germany, was decorated the year before by the Nazi Hermann Goring with that nation’s medal of honor, and was becoming an isolationist and Roosevelt antagonist.” After World War II, Einstein became a passionate advocate for a world government with a monopoly on force so that a nuclear war would not be possible.

Einstein was an almost unconditional pacifist who believed that young people should refuse to serve in their countries’ militaries. After the German people elected Hitler, Einstein said “the time seems inauspicious for further advocacy of certain propositions of the radical pacifist movement” and encouraged other European countries to rearm.

Immediately upon emigrating to the U.S., Einstein became a thorn in the side of right-wing Americans. Isaacson writes “When Marian Anderson, the black contralto, came to Princeton for a concert in 1937, the Nassau Inn refused her a room. So Einstein invited her to stay at his house on Mercer Street. … Whenever she returned to Princeton, she stayed with Einstein, her last visit coming just two months before he died.” Isaacson notes on the same page that in a survey of incoming Princeton freshmen in 1938, Adolf Hilter polled highest as the “greatest living person” (this was three years after the Nuremberg Laws had been passed, stripping Jews of their German citizenship and two years after the very public controversy over whether black athletes should boycott the 1936 Berlin Olympics due to the host government’s statements about the inferiority of non-Aryans). After World War II, Einstein continued his antagonism of the Establishment by publicly defending those accused of Communist sympathies by Senator Joe McCarthy.

Einstein never returned to Europe after 1933, which was perhaps just as well considering his feelings about his former neighbors: “The Germans, as a whole nation, are responsible for these mass killings and should be punished as a people. … It is absolute necessary to prevent the restoration of German industrial policy for many years. … The Germans butchered millions of civilians according to a well-prepared plan. They would do it again if only they were able to. Not a trace of guilt or remorse is to be found among them. The crimes of the Germans are really the most abominable ever to be recorded in the history of the so-called civilized nations. The conduct of the German intellectuals–viewed as a class–was no better than that of the mob.”

Einstein lived remarkably well consider his academic vocation. On his academic salary, admittedly at the very top of the pay scale then, he was able to rent beautiful beach houses and mountain retreats for the entire summer. In a U.S. that held only 125 million people and no hedge fund managers, there was apparently not that much competition for 20-acre beachfront estates on Long Island Sound.

The young Einstein was happy to discard most preconceived notions of physics if experimental evidence contradicted them. As he got older, he became more stubborn scientifically, resistant to quantum mechanics (though ultimately accepting its predictive value), indifferent to newly discovered forces (strong and weak) and particles, and stuck in the rut of trying to work out a theory that would unify electromagnetism and gravity (but not the strong or weak forces). Perhaps if he had lived long enough, he would have become a Reagan Republican.

4 thoughts on “Einstein Biography by Walter Isaacson

  1. Thanks for great distillation of book I doubt I’ll have time to read. Highly recommend to anyone interested in Einstein a visit to his apartment in Bern where he and Mileva lived, not far from that Swiss city’s famous bear pit. Downstairs is a cafe where Einstein often took breakfast. Quite well-preserved, and simply a local brasserie/cafe for modern-day Berne.

  2. You might also find Lee Smolin‘s article in the New York Review of Books to be interesting. Smolin, reviewing Isaacson’s book as well as several others, discusses the sharp contrast between Einstein’s public image as a “mellow sage” and the reality.

    … the young Einstein, the one who actually made the great discoveries we associate with his name, is nothing like the mellow sage described during his Princeton years. He was seen by his contemporaries as arrogant, intolerant of authority, charismatic, good-looking, manipulative, and avidly engaged in his relationships with women, his children, his friendships, his music. One of his classmates described him as follows:

    “Sure of himself, his gray felt hat pushed back on his thick, black hair, he strode energetically up and down in a rapid, I might almost say, crazy, tempo of a restless spirit which carries a whole world in itself. Nothing escaped the sharp gaze of his bright brown eyes. Whoever approached him immediately came under the spell of his superior personality. A sarcastic curl of his rather full mouth with the protruding lower lip did not encourage philistines to fraternize with him. Unhampered by convention, his attitude towards the world was that of the laughing philosopher, and his witty mockery pitilessly lashed any conceit or pose.”

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