A.Word.A.Day recently sent me, among other valuable tidbits, a quotation that perfectly describes Einstein (thought I, being in the middle of his biography):
A harmless hilarity and a buoyant cheerfulness are not infrequent concomitants of genius; and we are never more deceived than when we mistake gravity for greatness, solemnity for science, and pomposity for erudition.– Charles Caleb Colton; Lacon: or Many Things in Few Words; Longmans; 1837. Quoted by A.Word.A.Day, August 31, 2012.
And here’s the poster child for that very thought: hilarity and cheerfulness (among other qualities) combined in one of the geniuses of the modern era.
Walter Isaacson is a well-respected biographer. (His other works include biographies of Kissinger, Ben Franklin, and most recently Steve Jobs.) This well-regarded biography of Einstein appears to be very well-researched and thorough, and I thought the audio narration by Edward Herrmann was well-done and well-suited.
What I liked best about this book was its characterization of Einstein, the charmingly rumpled, distracted, unique genius with the twinkling eyes and the mad wild hair who rode a bicycle. There were times I didn’t like Einstein, too: in the course of separating from and later divorcing his wife, he didn’t treat his two sons very well. It felt like he expected them to behave like little adults – or perhaps more accurately, he behaved like a child. He wasn’t entirely sweet to his wife, either, which is of course common in divorces but no less charming for that. But Isaacson’s portrayal of of Einstein’s mental style was lovely to read: how he thought in pictures, in objects in action, in “thought experiments” and not in words; the way his aversion to authority and accepted truths freed him to think such outlandish thoughts that he revolutionized science; these are the singularities that made Einstein Einstein, and that was an important lesson to take away. Also, it was fun to read the story of his life with the advantage of hindsight – that this is Einstein we’re talking about here – and see all the rejections and belittlings he underwent, and sort of chortle at the irony. (Correction of a well-known myth: Einstein did not, in fact, fail math. He did rather well. However, there was that teacher that said he would “never amount to much.” That part is true.)
I observe that my decision not to pursue a subject like theoretical physics was a very, very good decision. I can follow all sorts of things, grasp all sorts of concepts, but not this. My eyes glazed over within moments of the science-talk beginning (dangerous for driving). I positively cannot “get” Einstein, and I’m comfortable with that. But it made this book a little more difficult than I would have liked, because the book is rather science-heavy. I think there are different ways to do this job, of writing a biography of a scientific figure, or other science-based nonfiction. I think of Soundings or even The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, both lovely narrative works about science and people that treated the people more heavily, and in more depth, than they did the science. The science was there, present (necessarily), and well explained, made accessible by explanation, but the people shown brighter. That worked for me. Here, in Einstein, it was Einstein himself that I was most interested in, and I liked it when his personality, his public image, his family dealings, etc. were at the forefront. Isaacson lost me entirely and quickly every time he wandered into physics and relativity. One way is not better or worse, but different; and it’s clear which style I prefer for my scientific nonfiction.
That said, the man played a starring role, and I believe Isaacson’s intention was to put in the science needed to place Einstein in context. I learned a lot about Einstein, I was entertained by his foibles and eccentricities (the not wearing of the socks! oh my), I was charmed. I was provoked to contemplate some of the troubling moments in world history that Einstein witnessed and participated in (Germany in the 1930’s, fascism, McCarthyism, the atom bomb, on and on). In a nutshell, Isaacson captures well the humanity of Einstein: his charm, his flaws, and his genius, all in one. This biography is moving, entertaining, and very informative. If you’re so inclined, you might even learn some physics from it. I can see why Isaacson’s stock as a biographer is high, and I forgive him for baffling me here and there.