I have never felt so much smarter and stupider, in equal parts, for reading a book.
For Book Riot’s read a biography task, I ambitiously chose Walter Isaacson’s tome Einstein: His Life and Universe (2007). It was in the spirit of the “Read Harder” challenge that I picked a book that I would not normally put forth the time and effort to read. Biographies are not my typical genre and physics is, well, I’m told I made my high school physics teacher cry, so there’s that. Perhaps part of me wanted to return to my days at the University of Chicago, pouring over erudite writings on which I had only the most tenuous of grasps. Those days were not fun, but they did leave me with the occasional masochistic desire to immerse myself in scholarly works and see how I make it through to the other end. I’d say this fit the bill nicely.
The first thing I must say about this biography is to commend Isaacson for how deftly he sews together the pieces of Einstein’s life. It is incomprehensible to me how one takes so many letters and documents and memories – on such a dense topic – and weaves them into a readable narrative. The book could easily fall into the trap of skirting over the theoretical physics and focusing on mainly Einstein’s life, of which there was plenty of juicy gossip to fill the pages there, or, alternatively, presenting a strictly pedantic work that would fly over the lay reader’s head. Isaacson strikes a fine balance between the two so that there is never too much of one without the other.
Now, I won’t front like I know anything about theoretical physics or quantum mechanics, or that I understood the great many pages on riding light beams or photons or molecular…things…but I can say that I did get a fair bit out of learning how Einstein changed the course of history, through both scientific and social contributions. Isaacson dispels the oft-heard notion that Einstein failed math, instead bringing to light Einstein’s belief that “free action and personal responsibility” are paramount to a successful education, and that rote memorization does not lead to an intellectual society. Once again we see that success was not easy for even the most revered figures in history – it took years for Einstein to get an academic job after graduation and he spent his most creative years working for a patent office “even after he had written the papers that reoriented physics.” Yet, the office proved to be a fruitful place, where concentrating on real life problems “stimulated [him] to see the physical ramifications of physical concepts.” He worked for a man who believed that everything should be questioned, that which is accepted should be challenged, and the obvious should never be trusted as true. Einstein’s intellect cannot be denied, but neither can the fact that he found himself in an environment that allowed him to think.
If there’s anything academic I take away from the book, it’s becoming familiar with Einstein’s special theory of relativity and his concept of relative time. As I understand it (and I could 100% be wrong), relativity means that the fundamental laws of physics are the same whatever your state of motion. Einstein conceived of a special theory that only applies to a situation “in which the observers are moving at a constant velocity relative to one another – uniformly in a straight line at a steady speed.” For example, if you are in an airplane moving at hundreds of miles per hour, you and everyone and everything else on that plane are at rest relative to each other. The person next to you doesn’t appear to move in fast forward. Relative time is slightly trickier for me to grasp. This concept states that “all moving reference frames have their own relative time,” meaning that if you and I are at different locations, the same event, such as a lightning strike, can be perceived as occurring at different times. Time is not absolute.
If nothing else, the idea of relative time led to me having an argument in a sandwich shop about what would happen if you traveled on a train at the speed of light for 1,000 years. Yeah, this is what my people and I discuss on a Saturday night.
Back to Einstein. What I found most interesting on a social level was Einstein’s involvement, or lack thereof, in World War II. He wavered in his identification as Jew through most of his life, though, as one might expect, found his name on target lists prepared by Nazi sympathizers and was encouraged to leave Berlin where he had been teaching. In 1939, Einstein wrote a letter to President Roosevelt, cautioning him that “It may become possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium, by which vast amounts of power and large quantities of new radium-like elements would be generated. Now it appears almost certain that this could be achieved in the immediate future.” He and his colleagues were concerned that the Germans would discover the secret to the bomb and yet the opposite was to be true, as the US began work on the Manhattan Project. Although Einstein was never a part of the Project, his name and his work defining the underlying relationship between energy and mass, the famed E=mc2, became entwined with the atom bomb and he was forever perceived in popular imagination as having a hand in the destruction it wrought. As Isaacson writes, “it was a perception that plagued him.”
Reading this book was a task, but it’s one that I’m glad I undertook. I’ve never known much about the man who had one of the greatest influences in how we understand our world and now, well, I can argue about time travel. But even more, I’m struck by Einstein’s constant curiosity and his eagerness to learn more. Said Einstein to a friend, “People like you and me never grow old… We never cease to stand like curious children before the great mystery into which we were born.” Maybe that’s our problem – we grow up and accept what’s in front of us instead of continuing to be curious about that which we do not understand. In this regard, I hope to be a little more like Einstein.
[Book Riot Read Harder Challenge: read a biography, read a nonfiction book about science]