In 'Einstein: His Life and Universe,' energy, mass, and enlightenment

Isaacson frames the scientist's theories in a narrative of wonder and pursuit of freedom.

A great year could be defined as winning the Masters in your first attempt as a professional (Tiger Woods, 1997), sweeping the Oscars after a storied directing career (Martin Scorsese, 2007), or any number of impressive accomplishments, from winning the presidency to creating the iPod. If those feats count for greatness, what superlative could then be summoned to describe what Albert Einstein achieved in 1905?

In that single year, as Walter Isaacson reminds us in a new biography offering hearty helpings alike of energy, mass, and light, Einstein did the unthinkable. In a series of papers, he devised a revolutionary quantum theory of light; established once and for all the tangible existence of atoms; explained a scientific riddle of motion that had vexed scientists for the preceding 80 years; overhauled the concept of space and time; and, oh, by the way, crafted the world's best-known equation: Energy equals mass times the square of the speed of light. He was 26.

To Isaacson's credit, Einstein: His Life And Universe conveys the dizzying concepts of physics in a way most lay readers (this one certainly qualifies as that) can grasp. For example, when explaining Einstein's equation of speed and mass, he notes the enormity of converting matter into energy with powerful simplicity. The energy in the mass of one raisin, he writes, could supply most of New York City's energy needs for an entire day.

Untangling Einstein's discoveries and accomplishments require a bit of genius in itself for the scientifically challenged among us. After all, as Isaacson points out, Einstein came to symbolize the perception that modern physics operated at a level far above the heads of most people, a stark contrast to the earlier, more accessible cause-and-effect breakthroughs ushered in by Galileo, Isaac Newton, and Benjamin Franklin, among others. While everyone has at least a fuzzy knowledge of Einstein – the shock of unkempt hair, the use of his name as a synonym for genius and an enduring, iconic pop-culture familiarity – much of his basic biography is at least unexamined and probably unknown, as well, by the mainstream audience Isaacson's book targets.

It is a story, and life, every bit as remarkable as the landmark physics theories proffered by Einstein. Born to an irreligious German Jewish family, Einstein was considered anything but a synonym for brilliance as a small boy. His lack of verbal communication worried Albert's parents so much so that they consulted a doctor. Albert was past his second birthday before he began using words and a family maid dubbed him "the dopey one."

Soon enough, he would become a precocious, if rebellious, student. At 12, Albert's uncle introduced him to the Pythagorean theorem. The boy was captivated.

Around the same time, Einstein, immersed in the wonders of science, reached the conclusion that biblical stories could not be true. He eschewed orthodox religious practices for the rest of his life. At the same time, Einstein often referred to the harmony and beauty of what he called the mind of God.

Einstein fought conformity and authority throughout his life, religious and otherwise. "A foolish faith in authority is the first enemy of truth," he once said.

He also retained a childlike sense of wonder, which, in combination with his otherworldly intellect and singular focus, led to greatness.

While Einstein met scientific complications with dogged determination and flexible thinking, his response to personal affairs proved more relative both in theory and in practice. Scientific concerns often overwhelmed his personal life. His first marriage, to a brooding college classmate who boasted neither looks nor personality, devolved into a bitter, estranged relationship. It compromised not only the marriage, but also Einstein's relationship with his two sons.

He carried on a number of affairs and later married his cousin, Elsa. Though kind-hearted and open with the public, Einstein's close relationships were often difficult and messy. He constantly sought refuge in his work.

The influence of growing up in a rigid Germany, with its suffocating sense of order, inculcated a lifelong streak of anti-nationalism, pacifism, and a fierce belief in free speech.

It is fitting, then, that an unorthodox, imaginative thinker such as Einstein would long be locked out of academia. Upon graduation, he struggled to find a job before finally landing employment in the Swiss patent office. Unshackled from the constraints of academic life, Einstein instead found himself surrounded each day by all manner of ideas. Even the physical surroundings of the Bern patent office – trains and large clock towers – would figure into Einstein's thinking as he worked through complex considerations of the laws of physics.

In 1933, Einstein came to America, where he spent his final two decades. By that time, his was one of the most famous faces in the world. Although Einstein suggested exploration of an atomic bomb in a 1939 letter to President Roosevelt, he played no role in the Manhattan Project and was horrified by its ramifications.

In the wake of the atomic bombings in Japan, Einstein spent his final decade publicly calling for a unified world government and an end to violence.

In other words, Einstein's approach to political instability was the same as his exploration of physical incongruities: He sought unity and aimed for improbable, wildly creative solutions.

Or, as Isaacson puts it, "Albert Einstein was a locksmith blessed with imagination and guided by a faith in the harmony of nature's handiwork."

Erik Spanberg is a freelance writer in Charlotte, N.C.

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