Walter Isaacson’s Einstein: His Life and Universe is a Big Biography About a Very Important Person By a Well-Respected Author.
And, uhhh…I don’t have a lot more to add. The book is well-written, as you would expect. The research seems to be fine. Readers will learn a lot.
So there doesn’t seem to be any problem, does there? And maybe that’s the problem, if I should call it that. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy this book—I did. However, I was not riveted by it, nor was I was ever surprised by it, which seems a little odd considering that I didn’t know a lot about Einstein’s life going into this. There’s nothing wrong with the execution of this book (well, except for one shockingly awful typo, but I won’t harp on that…though I want to). Dare I suggest that maybe Einstein himself was not the most fascinating guy in the world?
Certainly Einstein was a great thinker, a great scientist and by all accounts, an exceedingly nice guy, the kind of sweet old man who helped local kids with their math homework. His biggest flaw seemed to be that as he got older, he became less scientifically adventurous and less willing to consider new radical ideas, even though that was how he had built his own reputation. However, that seems to be a common trait amongst scientists. In The Big Bang, Simon Singh suggested that throughout history, the way science advanced was when one generation of eminent thinkers died, giving new ideas a chance to be heard rather than dismissed. So I’m not going to fault Einstein on that. Other than that, though, it’s hard to really come up with a big crisis that shocked me and enthralled me.
There certainly are things to think about in this book (aside from those little matters of relativity and such). For example, did Einstein’s inability to get a job in a university early in his career help him come up with his great ideas because he was operating outside the influence of the conventional thinking of the time? I would agree. Did working in Bern, a Swiss city defined (as many are) by clocks and trains have an influence on the way Einstein conceptualized his ideas? Again, sounds likely. Did Einstein’s work in the patent office, where his job was basically to look at ideas on paper and think about whether they were new, different, and possible help him sharpen his ability to work through the “thought experiments” that were necessary to theoretical physics as opposed to experiential physics? It undoubtedly must have helped. You know, I did always think, poor Einstein, how terrible it must have been to be a genius stuck in a tedious job as a patent clerk, but now I see that it must have been rather interesting work—just think of the daily range of patent applications they must have seen in that office early in the 20th century, from the banal to the crazy to the nutty crazy to the so crazy it just might work kind of crazy. Could have been fun. I don’t know, though, if I’m willing to count a change of heart on whether being a patent clerk is actually a cool job as a fascinating revelation about one of science’s towering figures.
Am I becoming jaded? Am I asking too much from what is really a fine book? Probably. I guess the best way I would put it is that if given the choice of recommending this book or, for the sake of comparing scientists, the recent J. Robert Oppenheimer biography, American Prometheus , by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, I’d go with the latter. I’m not enough of an expert to tell you if Oppenheimer was a greater scientist than Einstein, but he certainly was a better story.
In the end, I liked this book, but I didn’t love it. Then again, I like many books, but love few.