Who was the real Albert Einstein? That’s the major question Walter Isaacson tackles in his biography, Einstein: His Life and Universe.
In Einstein, serial biographer Walter Isaacson – he’s also written books on Benjamin Franklin and most recently, Steve Jobs – looks beyond the physicist’s legendary intellectual accomplishments to focus on the relationship between his personal life and his scientific theories.
Einstein weaves personal details into a compelling narrative that provides unique insights into the private persona of a public genius. While Isaacson does not turn his back on Einstein’s scientific legacy, he is careful to make sure science doesn’t comprise the bulk of the book. And when he does delve into the technical aspects of Einstein’s work, he wisely taps famed Columbia University physicist Brian Greene to help explain the scientific complexities in layman’s terms.
Even more compelling than the science is the picture Isaacson paints of a man slow to find professional and personal success. Previously unreleased letters reveal Einstein to have been a man with a difficult personal life, divorced from his first wife and nearly estranged from his two children. Despite his domestic troubles he was also a gregarious man who was warm with friends and popular with colleagues.
One of the lesser-appreciated aspects of Einstein’s life is the difficulty he faced early in his career. While his name is now synonymous with “genius,” he was, after finishing his studies, shunned by the academic establishment and forced to clerk in a Bern patent office. Yet he did not let personal or professional setbacks derail his work. Indeed, Einstein’s tenure in Bern was one of his most productive periods, and during his time at the Swiss Federal Office for Intellectual Property, he came up with the now legendary equation E=MC2.
Ultimately, Isaacson’s biography provides a humane portrait of a man who has become something of a caricature in modern popular culture. While Einstein may have always been the genius we hail today, he certainly wasn’t always considered one in either domestic or academic circles. This latest biography shows that even geniuses can benefit from the education provided by adversity.
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