Walter Isaacson’s Einstein

Having been so impressed by Isaacson’s portrayal of Benjamin Franklin, and not knowing nearly as much about Einstein’s life as I wanted to, I decided to also read Isaacson’s biography of Einstein. However, it must be noted that this book is not simply a biography. Isaacson has delved deep not only into the life of Einstein, but also into the world that he inhabited and profoundly affected; the science of the 20th century and the history of the 21st century. While this does mean the book is often a bit slow and convoluted, it also means that it is incredibly informative. It brilliantly paints the portrait of a vivacious character, a person far more interesting than the sum of his famous work. Correspondingly it also brings a greater understanding of Einstein’s work (both scientific and otherwise), and how it greatly affects us even now.

So, as you would expect from a biography, Einstein by Walter Isaacson gives us a grand tour of the life of Albert Einstein. It tracks his life from birth to death, and visits many of the highlights along the way. Isaacson makes great use of much of Einsteins writings, as well the writings of his contemporaries. The book is littered with quotes from letters, essays and other publications, some by Einstein, some for Einstein and some about Einstein (apparently much of Einstein’s papers have only recently become available). But even more interesting is how much of Einstein’s life and personality is filled in.

Isaacson tracks Einstein’s transition from a remarkable revolutionary to a grouchy conservative (scientifically speaking), from an ambivalent Jew to a champion of Israel, from a German National to an Internationalist to an American, from an apparent loner to someone who greatly affected history by being outspoken. Isaacson shoots down the myth that Einstein was so brilliant that he just happened upon his theories (in fact they took great amounts of time, courage, tenacity and hard work). And while Einstein may not have been the greatest mathematician at his school, Isaacson also points out that he was a gifted mathematician.

There are really only two negative comments I would like to make about the book. For starters, I do not think it is as well written as Benjamin Franklin. While it is a much shorter book than Benjamin Franklin, I found it took me a lot longer to read. It is much easier to put down, and is often just too heavy to get in to. Second, I think Isaacson spends a bit too much time on Einstein’s personal life. While I understand this may be of interest to many people, and Einstein’s personal life was undoubtedly an important aspect of his life, some of the points were too laboured and often superfluous.

If you want a more detailed picture of Einstein than the shaggy haired, pipe smoking genius, and a greater understanding of his influence on science and history, this is the book for you. This book is about more than an extraordinary life, it is about a man with an extraordinary passion for the world. In fact, Einstein’s zeal for physics, maths, and life, as revealed in the book, and the vivid descriptions offered by Isaacson, have even prompted me to start studying maths and physics again. While not as well written as some of Isaacson’s other work, I highly recommend this book.

Benjamin Franklin

I had been wanting to read a good biography on Benjamin Franklin (and some of the other founding fathers) for a fair amount of time. While I am very interested in American history, especially the story of it’s founding, so far I have found the books on the subject to be very dry. I start them, put them down, and then forget them. But, Benjamin Franklin by Walter Isaacson is very different from any I have tried before. Isaacson’s work is a breath of fresh air. The former editor of Time Magazine brings a journalistic flair to what could have been a dry topic. Rather than a lifeless tome written by a tired old professor, this is a biography that is full of energy and passion.

So, lets start with a little outline of the book. Isaacson begins with the story of Franklin’s arrival in Philadelphia, but then goes back and gives a full account of his life. We learn about the Franklin family’s migration to America, Franklin’s growing up and apprenticeship as a printer; we see his success as a businessman, politician and philosopher; we meet his family and friends, and hear of his role in the intrigue between America and Britain, the revolutionary war, and eventual creation of a new nation. Along the way we are introduced to a very interesting and complicated man. A man powered into history by curiosity, intelligence, determination, and a clear sense of purpose. One, who (at least in Isaacson’s opinion) defines the very essence of the American dream.

In short, Isaacson’s portrayal of Franklin is both detailed and accessible at the same time. It is not only intricate and sophisticated, but very readable. Isaacson is someone who obviously loves history, and that love shines throughout the book. It is that rare nonfiction book; hugely detailed and a page turner. I would recommend this book to pretty much anyone who likes to read. You don’t have to be that enamored by biographies, Benjamin Franklin or American history to enjoy this book. But you probably will be once you finish it.

The One World Schoolhouse

Over the past year I have heard quite a lot about Khan Academy from friends, family, classmates, and even Youtube. So a few months ago I finally decided to give Khan Academy a go. I thought maybe it would be a good tool for revising some of the Economics that I have forgotten, and some of the Science I never knew. Well, I have been downloading and watching the videos ever since. I have learned and relearned everything from Macroeconomics and how to calculate probability, to why it feels hotter when it is humid. I have found it so useful and unique, that I decided to give Khan’s book a go as well. I was not really expecting much more than your average book written by a do-gooder hoping to make some money to live, but this book contains a startling amount of information and insight on the history and deficiencies of the modern system of education. A very good and important read.

So the actual content of the book is quite interesting. It is partly a history of Khan Academy itself, but most of the book is devoted to explaining the origins of the education system, pointing out it’s flaws, and, most importantly, posing solutions. Khan takes us through the first stages of the Khan Academy when he was just tutoring his cousin over the internet. He then introduces us to the idea that the modern educational system (in the United States and many other “advanced” countries) is a descendant of the Prussian educational model, which was based on an assembly line, with children moving through the stages of education in age groups. He shows that this type of learning has led to what he calls “Swiss Cheese Learning”; where many students have gaps in their educational foundations due to one size fits all policies, and policies that perpetuate poor learning techniques in the face of new evidence. He shows that systems like this penalize those that are different, do not adequately equip many with the knowledge and love of learning they will need in later life, and does little to recognize potential. Finally he shows us how using software and technology like Khan Academy, and techniques like “flipping the classroom,” could lead to much better education in places like America, and a very good education in places where it does not currently exist.

So, as you might expect from what I have said so far, I found this to be a magnificent book, full of brilliant ideas. I love innovation, especially when in pivotal aspects of life like education. Furthermore, despite being someone who loves to learn I struggled in School, and I think many of Khan’s suggestions would have helped me and I think it could help many others all over the world. This new world of ours needs a new type of educational system, and some of Khan’s ideas could be the basis for that. I suggest this book if you are interested in education and innovation. I suggest this book if you are just a fan of Khan Academy and want to know a little bit more about it and the ideas behind it.

The rise and Fall of the Third Reich

I picked up the famous book “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” a few months before going to Germany on exchange. I was planning on studying mostly history while in Germany and I figured I needed a refresher course before I arrived. Unfortunately, the book is so long, so convoluted and so boring that I didn’t finish it until well into my exchange. Even taking into account the 1280 pages, the book took me an abnormally long time to read. I found myself making any and all excuses to put it down, and I even finished two other books while I was reading it.

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is the work of William L. Shirer, a noted American war correspondent, historian and an original “Murrow Boy”. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich covers much of the history of Germany between the ascent of Hitler in 1934 and the end of National Socialism in 1945. Shirer was stationed in Germany from 1934 until 1940, and much of this book relies on his own diary entries and first hand knowledge of events and feelings within Germany during this tumultuous time. Shirer also translates many diary entries by prominent Nazi officials, as well as proclamations and government documents issued by the Third Reich.

However, this is where the positives of Shirer’s book stop. The book is positively mind numbing in a way that I have never experienced before. Normally I am a quick reader, and I am quite adept at forging through slow books, or slow parts of books. However, Shirer completely fails to string together any narrative at all. At best, this book could be considered a scrapbook of notable events and diary entries from within the Third Reich. And as such, fails to completely grasp the reader’s attention. It is remarkably easy to get sidetracked reading this book, as I found out during the 3 or so months that I was technically “reading” it. Shirer’s knowledge of his subject is remarkable, as is much of his analysis, however he quite easily digresses into the mundane minutiae of day-to-day life within the Third Reich, much of it completely pointless, and distracting, to those of us who want a big picture view of these turbulent times.

If I wanted to learn history by reading a long list of dates, events and quotes, I would use the internet. The reason I read books on history is that I learn and enjoy it a lot more when history becomes a narrative. Granted, Shirer does use a lot of quotes from both his and other prominent diaries, which are incredibly interesting, but Shirer fails to capture that “continuous narrative” element that I look for in a successful history book. This is definitely a good book for someone studying German history to use as source material, especially since much of the work consists of translations of German diaries as well as Shirer’s own first hand accounts, but for the regular history buff I would look elsewhere.


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