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.