Sunday, April 06, 2008

Einstein: His Life and Universe, by Walter Isaacson

Albert Einstein, as Walter Isaacson shows in his biography Einstein: His Life and Universe (2007), was an individual, an iconoclast, all his life. He resisted authority in whatever form, resisted pressures to conform or to operate in any way other than according to his own sense of what he should do. This extended from his unconventional personal life, his relationship with his wives and children, to his relationships with colleagues and the public. His professors in undergraduate and graduate school did not like him especially—they found him diffident, arrogant, or just lazy--and this made it difficult for him to find work, even for several years after the great essays of 1905. Isaakson does a good job of separating Einstein myth from Einstein reality, especially the myth that Einstein was a failure as a student. His scholastic performance was uneven. He did well in the classes he enjoyed or that interested him, and average in other classes. Some of his early teachers recognized his potential brilliance, but based on his performance in school no one could have predicted what was to follow.

Isaakson also explains persuasively how Einstein's willingness to question the authority of the scientists and research that came before him was a key to his discoveries. Newtonian law was so firmly entrenched that it took someone willing to follow apparent inconsistencies and deviations to discover the reasons for them.

Einstein was an accomplished violinist. He played throughout his life. He had an especial fondness for Bach but wasn't so fond of Beethoven, whom he found excessively emotional.

Einstein from an early age preferred to think in visual rather than mathematical terms. That is, he used visual thought experiments rather than equations to develop his theories. An early thought experiment involved envisioning a man running down the road next to a beam of light. By contemplating this image, the relationship of the man to the light beam, he was able to formulate in his mind all the aspects and implications of his theory. Once he had worked out a particular theory, he enlisted friends to help him develop the equations that would explain it mathematically. Later in his life, especially as he began struggling to develop a unified field theory, he relied increasingly on mathematics. When he died, equations he was working on were found with him.

The two great years in Einstein's life were 1905, when he published four groundbreaking essays, one of them on the special theory of relativity. Another was about light as quanta, which became the basis for quantum theory. His next big year was 1916, when he concluded work on his general theory of relativity, which he had struggled with for nearly a decade. Although he made other contributions in his lifetime, they were mostly minor, building on his earlier work. He spent the rest of his life—39 years--in an increasingly quixotic effort to devise a unified field theory. Time after time he would think he was about to find the answers he sought and then for one reason or another they would slip away. Although his attempts to find a unified theory were not successful and did frustrate him, he did not seem so much frustrated by the fact that his greatest work came early in his career. Instead he felt bemused. He came to feel increasingly out of place and out of touch as his career progressed, and scientists who had committed to quantum theory found him increasingly a thorn in their sides. They respected him and his early work. But he resisted the full implications of quantum theory to the end of his life—even though he was partially responsible for the development of quantum physics. His efforts to discover a unified theory was based on his firm belief that the universe functions according to specific, concrete laws that are observable, verifiable, and predictable. If he could find such a theory, he thought, he would be able to discount the unpredictability that remains a basic principle of quantum theory.

Einstein used the metaphor of God or of "the Old One" to represent his belief in a logical universe, one that worked according to standard and predictable laws. His argument with quantum physics was a reflection of his belief in a predictable and logical Universe: "God does not play dice with the Universe" was his way of expressing his disbelief in the world of quantum physics, even though his work in 1905 was fundamental to its development.

Einstein's search for a unified field theory paralleled his support for a world governing body, to which nations would surrender a degree of sovereignty and, after the Second World War, their nuclear weapons. He lent his name to numerous causes, often without carefully considering them, which meant that in a few cases they had associations with communism that he did not know about. In fact, Einstein was always suspicious of the Russian government and even avoided visiting the Soviet Union because he feared that his name would be used in a political cause he did not agree with. He was a strong pacifist until the rise of Nazism and the Nazi persecution of the Jews, when he began to modify his pacifist views, recognizing that in some circumstances pacifism didn't work. Ultimately he helped make the U. S. government aware of the potential for a nuclear bomb. Later in his life he regretted that he had not done more to control its use, but he never returned to his earlier pacifism. He also early in his life avoided associating himself with Judaism, either as a faith or an ethnic identity. Although he never quite embraced it as a religious heritage, he did increasingly identify with Judaism as a cultural heritage. He was even offered the presidency of Israel in the early 1950s, but turned it down, much to the relief of David Ben-Gurion, who recognized after making it that the offer had been ill-considered.

Isaacson covers these and other aspects of Einstein's life in his biography. He is especially effective at explaining Einstein's theories. He makes a compelling and even moving case for the genius as well as the broadly based humanity of Einstein.

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