New and Notable in Adult Non-Fiction at the Truckee Library
Friends of the Library
One of the more rewarding biographies to appear on the shelves of the Truckee Library recently is Walter Isaacson’s “Einstein: His Life and Universe.” This exciting story of early 20th century physics and Einstein’s role in reshaping it is told in the context of his personal history and his impact far beyond the field of theoretical physics.
In the parts of the book dealing with physics, the author describes clearly and simply such matters as special and general relativity without resorting to difficult mathematics ” much to the relief of the average reader. The only equation in the entire book is the famous E=mc2 . In relating Einstein’s personal life, Isaacson is the first biographer to have access to recently released personal letters.
Isaacson emphasizes that Einstein’s role as maverick and rebel in his scientific thinking is what enabled him to make his momentous breakthroughs, but it also forced him early on into the role of unpopular outsider, especially in the minds of conservative-thinking senior professors, the power brokers of academia.
It was not until 1908, three years after the “miracle year” of 1905 when he wrote papers that shook the foundations of the Newtonian universe, that he was offered a university-level professorship, thus allowing him to leave his minor post at the Swiss Patent Office in Bern. As physicists began to understand his work and its implications, however, he soon achieved celebrity status and, after short stints in Zurich and Prague, was appointed director of the prestigious Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin. There he remained until the Nazi takeover in 1933 when he renounced his German citizenship and immigrated to the United States.
Einstein’s personal life was at times as turbulent as his impact on physics. He probably never saw his first child, an illegitimate daughter born to Mileva Mariç, a fellow graduate student he eventually married. The child’s fate remains uncertain. Einstein never publicly acknowledged her existence. He watched his younger son slowly succumb to schizophrenia and be institutionalized. Divorced from Mileva, he married his cousin Elsa and settled into a cozier home life, but he was not a family man.
Einstein’s eminence in science and prominence in the public consciousness meant his words and activities in other areas were given much notice. Isaacson discusses in some detail his remarks on religion, his opposition to all kinds of nationalism and racism, his ambivalence towards the creation of a Jewish state, and, overwhelmed by the circumstances of the times, his transformation from pacifist to advocate of confronting Nazism with force.
Perhaps Einstein’s greatest impact on history was the letter drafted by fellow physicists that went out under his name to President Roosevelt describing the possibility of a bomb of vast destructive power. Thus the Manhattan Project was born. But most of his later life was spent in a futile attempt to resolve the seemingly contradictory nature of reality as described by quantum physics. He became, finally, a familiar figure on the Princeton campus, in his baggy sweatshirt and hair awry, shuffling in his sandals (but without socks) between home and office, sometimes for relaxation taking up his violin, but forever trying, alas in vain, to bring to fruition his unified field theory. Isaacson has written an engaging study whose richness can only be hinted at here.
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