Walter Isaacson


Simon and Schuster Audio

18 CDs; ISBN 0=7435-6138-4

Running time: about 22 hours

Read by: Edward Herrmann

Reviewed by Bob Lane

“They are cheering me because everyone understands me; they are cheering you because no one understands you!” – Charlie Chaplin to Albert Einstein at the premiere of City Lights.

I am a deeply religious nonbeliever. This is a somewhat new kind of religion. -Albert Einstein

Isaacson’s book is superb. Herrmann’s reading of the book is perfect. Herrmann does not get between the author and the audience but presents an intelligent reading filled with sensitivity and power which allows the listener the freedom to react imaginatively to the text.

I have become a great fan of audio books. I listened in the car on a recent 7,000 kilometer motor trip. I listen in the gym while working out on a rowing machine or a treadmill. That sort of multi-tasking is one of the fringe benefits of modern technology.

The work takes full advantage of the recently released Einstein letters covering many personal, professional, public and scientific matters. Mileva Maric, Elsa Einstein, Hendrik Lorentz, Arnold Sommerfeld, Paul Ehrenfest, Tullio Levi-Civita, David Hilbert, Willem de Sitter, Max Born, Max Planck, Hermann Weyl, Niels Bohr and Felix Klein – a veritable “who’s who” of the twentieth century – are all included.

Through the comprehensive research exhibited in the book we are afforded a glimpse into one of the great minds of the twentieth century, or, perhaps any century. And we learn that it is a very human mind, particularly in the personal letters between Einstein and Mileva which are quite painful to hear after their marriage and relationship has deteriorated, a mind that can at once soar with thoughts of the infinite and God’s mind to the details of a bitter separation. For example, in two letters dated 18 July 1914, Einstein stipulates very strict rules of conduct to govern social contacts between them, including such conditions as these: ‘… you must leave my bedroom or office immediately without protest if I so request… you commit yourself not to disparage me either in word or in deed in front of my children… . After all that has happened, a comradely relationship with you is out of the question… . It remains possible that I’ll regain a greater degree of confidence in you through proper behaviour on your part…’.

There are also letters detailing financial arrangements including the offer to Mileva to give her the money from his expected, but not yet received, Nobel Prize.

So many names which have passed into the history and philosophy of science come alive in these pages. One is left with a strong impression of a supremely gifted intellect having to concern itself with the petty and the mundane concerns of life as well as wrestling with the profoundest questions of nature. We are reminded that a complete, a full, life is made up of imagination, hard work, difficulties with loved ones, intellectual achievements and disappointments, friends, enemies, and loved ones.

Isaacson is able to employ the words of Einstein in the letters and papers along with an explanatory narrative to bring the excitement of Einstein’s discoveries to life. The early papers of 1905 shine through the narrative with stunning clarity and brilliance in a way that is accessible to all, even non-scientists like this listener. The special theory of relativity, the general theory of relativity, the prediction of gravity bending light waves, the dual properties of light, all of these are made clear in the text.

In addition to the science there is also a chronological review of the twentieth century and its wars, its struggles, its short comings as the cruelest of all centuries. We see and feel the explosion of joy and celebration world wide when Einstein reaches the peak of his public adoration and is for the first time in history greeted everywhere as a “rock star” theoretical physicist. We are present for the founding of the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton. We watch in horror as Hitler rises to power and the brown shirts burn books and papers in a “cleansed” Berlin. We note with irony that by expelling the Jewish scientists from Germany, Hitler and the Nazis guarantee that the Allies will be first to develop the atom bomb. We watch as Einstein’s ship arrives in San Diego and he is greeted by a choir of hundreds of young school children in a ceremony of welcome that takes over four hours with speeches and songs.

We go with the Einsteins on their trip to Japan where his lectures with translations take up to four hours. (The first lecture does take four hours and in an attempt to shorten the time for the listeners Einstein cuts the second by one fourth only to cause the audience to feel slighted because they were expecting the full four!) We watch the growing anti-Semitism in Germany as it spreads like a cancer over the people and the institutions. We see Einstein change his mind about pacifism in response to the Nazis and their programs. And we understand that he is responding just as we would expect a scientist to respond to changing facts – when the facts change the theory must be revised.

We come to understand that Einstein’s philosophy is close to that of Spinoza, and that like Spinoza he was a determinist who did not believe in the personal god of Judaism and Christianity. We see a man, a human being with imagination, intelligence, and blind spots. In Princeton in the 1930s he remarks that the USA is a perfect place for freedom, apparently blind to the plight of the Blacks in America, just as Aristotle 2400 years earlier was blind to slavery and women’s rights.

We watch a pattern develop in Einstein’s work where an imaginative thought experiment will lead him to new territory and allow him to break with the past and suggest empirical tests that will verify his work. We wait again with the world for Eddington’s verification

of Einstein’s claim that his theory of gravity bending light rays will be verifiable at the eclipse of the sun.

Above all Isaacson teaches us that Einstein’s love of freedom, rebellion against authority, and belief in pure thought were instrumental in his ground breaking work in physics, work that puts him right there with Newton in the realm of geniuses.

This work, either in print or in the audio version, is excellent. It is rewarding for all readers who have an interest in science, history, or philosophy. Read it or listen to Herrmann read it – you will not be disappointed!


Bob Lane is a retired professor of English and Philosophy

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