“Einstein is completely cuckoo!”—J. Robert Oppenheimer
I’m not a big reader of biographies but just wrapped up Einstein, His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson. A friend recommended it, it was on kindle, so I took a chance and downloaded it, albeit with some doubts: Would the life of history’s most famous genius hold my attention?
What nudged me into buying it is the guru-like mystique surrounding Einstein’s persona (if only in my imagination). What fueled my curiosity is that I did not understand Einstein at all, and couldn’t for the life of me imagine what all the fuss was about. I mean, what the hell does e=mc² mean anyway?
Happy to report I wasn’t disappointed. To my surprise and delight Isaacson hooked me from page one. He managed to take a cryptic, highly technical subject inherent in covering Einstein’s life and work, and make it accessible and interesting, even to a humanities-majoring monkey like me, no small feat.
On the lighter side, Einstein is packed with great quotes and wonderful anecdotes, some profound some profane. A couple tidbits:
When Einstein uttered to quantum physicist Niels Bohr his oft quoted “God doesn’t play dice!” an annoyed Bohr shot back, “Einstein, stop telling God what to do!”
And did you know Einstein was a chick magnet who loved the ladies? He even had a fling with married Russian spy Margarita Konenkova. (By all accounts he was clueless that she was a spy, a claim that fits his image as the bumbling, naive absent-minded professor.)
Einstein’s scientific contribution to the world is old news, of course. But Isaacson keeps it fresh, highlighting, for example, Einstein’s profound accomplishments over just a two-year period (from 1915 to 1917) when “he generalized relativity, found the field equations for gravity, found a physical explanation for light quanta, hinted at how the quanta involved probability rather than certainty, and came up with a concept for the structure of the universe as a whole. From the smallest thing conceivable, the quantum, to the largest, the cosmos itself, Einstein had proven a master.”
That’s heady stuff, awe-inspiring if you ponder what it means.
But the non-scientific dimensions of Einstein’s life are just as interesting. Einstein wasn’t just a scientist. He was a philosopher, rebellious contrarian, artistic visionary, thinker in images, and champion of the underdog. He slept in the nude, married his cousin, cavorted with Charlie Chaplain, wore shoes without socks, was skeptical of psychoanalysis and a self-proclaimed “deeply religious nonbeliever.” He was even an honorary member of a plumber’s union! He amused himself playing violin with likeminded musicians and discussing high-minded ideas with friends, passions fueled by strong coffee and stinky cigars. Just like the rest of us, Einstein was a flawed human being with vices and blind spots and weaknesses and contradictions.
He was also the first scientist with rock-star fame, and a profound shaper of culture.
Isaacson explains the cultural shift that Einstein was part of:
“There are historical moments when an alignment of forces causes a shift in human outlook. It happened to art and philosophy and science at the beginning of the Renaissance, and again at the beginning of the Enlightenment. Now, in the early twentieth century, modernism was born by the breaking of the old strictures and verities. A spontaneous combustion occurred that included the works of Einstein, Picasso, Matisse, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Joyce, Eliot, Proust, Diaghilev, Freud, Wittgenstein, and dozens of other path-breakers who seemed to break the bonds of classical thinking.”
Indeed Einstein’s theory of relativity had a huge cultural impact on artists, thinkers and all modern monkeys, even those of us who still don’t quite understand it.
Was Einstein completely cuckoo? It depends on how you define cuckoo. He certainly was a quirky, Bohemian, iconoclastic rebel who questioned authority along with all the traditional wisdom the authorities embraced. That was a big part of his genius. Some people might call that cuckoo.
After reading this book I concur with Oppenheimer that Einstein was a bit cuckoo. But I say it with affection and admiration. Hope that makes sense.
And hope you read the book.
But for the majority of readers with absolutely no intention of reading Einstein, in future posts we’ll examine his human side, sense of humor, musings on God, atheists, politics, nationalism, America, fame, uncertainty, morality and more.
Source material: Einstein, His Life and Universe, Walter Isaacson
Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2013