Walter Isaacson’s “Einstein”

On the suggestion of my friend Al, I acquired and recently finished the recent Einstein biography by Walter Isaacson. He also wrote one on Franklin which I will read soon as well. As for the Einstein biography, it is about 550 pages long follow by 90 pages of footnotes and references and 50 pages of index. It covers his life and attempts to explain some of his theories. I found that the first half about his childhood and momentous discoveries in 1905 was exciting. I hadn’t realized that most of his most critical insights came within months of each other and several years before they could be fully understood or exploited. The photoelectric effect (proving the existence of atoms) Brownian motion, special relativity, and the equivalence of matter and energy were all there. It took him another 10 years to get from the special theory to the general theory of relativity. Interesting to note as well was the innate marketing in Einstein to simplify formulas to their more palatable essence: the five symbols in E=mc2 being so incredibly benign looking but in fact harboring atom-shattering power. Isaacson often takes time to demonstrate how Einstein was constantly in wonder at the universe around him and convinced that there was some relatively simple rules hiding there waiting to be discovered by some distant omniscient deity. His further quest for general relatively was similarly passionate reading particularly in the race with a Swedish mathematician David Hildbert to find the final formula. It is a bit harder to remember and understand than the special theory but contains the famous cosmological constant that bugged him ever after.

The book kind of slows down and loses a little focus after this initial rush. It drifts from Eintein’s Zionism, to his peace activism, events in his personal life, his emigration to the US, etc. The author organized the books on common themes rather than using a chronological account. I am more a fan of the latter (such as the 2-volume Faulkner biography by Blotner that remains my favorite) so this one left me a little wanting. As for the math, I would have appreciated a few more details on Einstein’s derivations and so forth but perhaps that’s just the nerd in me. I’ll need to get Hawking’s “On the Shoulders Of Giants” for that approach I think.

Overall, it is an interesting introduction to Einstein’s life and highly readable. Certainly not the best biography I ever read but not the worst either.


About mfinocchiaro

IT Architecture Guru for large PLM software company but dabbling in Web 2.0 and other stuff.
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One Response to Walter Isaacson’s “Einstein”

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Benjamin Franklin by Walter Isaacson | Fino's Weblog

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