Magical mind.

Author:Petranek, Stephen

Einstein: His Life and Universe - Book review


EINSTEIN: His Life and Universe. By Walter Isaacson, Simon & Schuster, $32

Making Albert Einstein new again defines the word difficult. More than a hundred books have been published in English probing the mind and life of this unique genius, and even the author of this latest one, Walter Isaacson, admits that 30 or so of those other books are well worth reading. Nonetheless, Einstein: His Life and Universe feels fresh. Isaacson manages to bring light--and with Einstein it is all about light--to the corners of a mind so original and imaginative that most of us can only shake our heads in wonder.

Somehow, Isaacson is able to explore his subject in a readable way without oversimplifying the science. The book's science creeps up on you and slips into your neurons. Yes, it's challenging--some sections require more than one reading. But you'll do it willingly, because Isaacson's narrative drive helps even the most mathematically reluctant reader push forward. He does this in part by being attentive to the ragged soap opera that made up so much of Einstein's life. How, for example, could this sweet, smart, and even funny man live his entire life and show no noticeable effect from never having seen an illegitimate daughter who mysteriously disappeared at about the age of two?

Books about Einstein normally fall into one of two categories--his life, or his science. The books focused on the latter tend to be much more of a slog. With Isaacson's Einstein you get both, in an ingenious weave of narrative, science, narrative, science, and then a twist of operatic drama. Isaacson's explanation for how he found the courage to offer so much science in a book he clearly wrote for a large audience is daunting.

"Understanding relativity is not easy," the author told me in an interview, "but understanding Macbeth isn't easy either. And yet you don't get intimidated by a Shakespeare play. I think we should have the same joy and excitement about wrestling with science as we do wrestling with Shakespeare. It's magical to be awed by the spirit manifest in the laws of the universe, and we can all appreciate it even if we don't know the math."

It helps, of course, that Einstein thought visually, that he himself really didn't like the math, and that most of his theories were "tested" in his own mind, not in a lab. When Einstein thought about light, about traveling at the speed of light, and about how everything might change as one approached the speed of light, he...

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