Einstein : his life and universe

by Walter Isaacson

Hardcover, 2007




New York : Simon & Schuster, c2007.


The first full biography of Albert Einstein since all of his papers have become available shows how his scientific imagination sprang from the rebellious nature of his personality. Biographer Isaacson explores how an imaginative, impertinent patent clerk--a struggling father in a difficult marriage who couldn't get a teaching job or a doctorate--became the locksmith of the mysteries of the atom and the universe. His success came from questioning conventional wisdom and marveling at mysteries that struck others as mundane. This led him to embrace a morality and politics based on respect for free minds, free spirits, and free individuals. These traits are just as vital for this new century of globalization, in which our success will depend on our creativity, as they were for the beginning of the last century, when Einstein helped usher in the modern age.--From publisher description.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member Bill_Masom
To the unscientific, this book is readable. It does discuss his discoveries, but in a way you should be able to at least grasp some meaning from them.

It isn't all science. It explores his personal and political life, and the events of rather interesting times that buffeted him, and helped shape his politics.

All and all, a great read, about a very fascinating man, warts and all. Did not regret reading one single page of the book
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LibraryThing member bragan
Now, this is exactly what a biography should be. It's through, lucid, and well-organized, and covers the personal, scientific, and political aspects of Einstein's life in a balanced and interesting fashion. It's well-written, featuring some pleasingly apt turns of phrase, but, commendably, Isaacson never lets his own voice overwhelm that of his subject. The scientific concepts behind Einstein's work are well-presented, too, in a way that carefully avoids any of the all-too-common popular misinterpretations but shouldn't prove too overwhelming for the layman. And, of course, it's about a brilliant and fascinating man.

Definitely recommended if a biography of Einstein is something you feel even remotely interested in reading.
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LibraryThing member Threlicus
As someone who only rarely reads biographies, I didn't expect to like this very much. Indeed, it wasn't the kind of plot-filled novel that I tend to like, which is why I only give it 3 stars. However, for a person who enjoys biography, I can recommend this book pretty highly. It was told in a not strictly sequential fashion (appropriate for the discoverer of relativity), and occasionally repeated itself on bits that had already been mentioned out of time order, but this was only jarring in a couple of instances. In general, though, it was full of interesting information on the man's life and his physics. Being a physicist myself, I can attest that the descriptions of the science included in the book are basically accurate, if somewhat simplified (as you might expect); but I have no idea how helpful they are for a layman's understanding of the physics, since I have the unfair advantage of already knowing what the theories say. ;)… (more)
LibraryThing member chrissie3
The book wasn’t amazing, but the man certainly was. Don’t get me wrong; I really liked the book, and it is one I would recommend to all those readers who want to meet an intelligent, wonderful, honest, humble person. I am not calling him great for what he did for science, but for the kind of person he was. He will appeal to those of you who like non-conformists, people with imagination and curiosity. He is one of those few adults who manage to keep alive a child’s delight in the world around them.

Now, there is a lot of physics in this book, and there are sections that went over my head. This annoyed me. Although it is not a criticism of the author, but rather a criticism of myself, IF the author had managed to make clear for me more of the scientific theories, I would have to call the book amazing. General and special relativity, gravitation and quantum mechanics they do all belong in this book, they should not be removed. I understand more than when I began, but I have far to go. Einstein saw and figured out his answers to the questions he was trying to solve through “thought experiments“. He would imagine a physical happening in his head, be it an elevator in free-fall or a bug crawling around a branch, and he would ask himself what would happen and how does the bug see the world around him. These thought experiments are Einstein’s, not the author's, and they are the easiest way to understand the laws of physics which Einstein discovered.

Others criticize how Einstein treated his family. He was who he was, and I don’t see him as worse than anybody else. He did love his family. All people do not express love in the same way.

Is there humor in the book? Yes, mostly in some of the things Einstein said.

You get history too. McCarthyism and Stalinism and Nazism. What role did he play? What was his role exactly in the development of atomic weapons, and more importantly how did he see the world afterwards. He thought there should be a world organization that controlled all atomic weapons. Was he naïve? Could this have ever worked? All of this is discussed.

Religion is discussed too. According to Einstein, it is the absence of miracles that proves the existence of divine providence. It is the laws of nature that so magnificently explain the world around us and that inspire awe. His belief in science was very close to his religiosity. They are one and the same thing.

Einstein in a nutshell: creativity and imagination and curiosity require non-conformity which requires the nurturing of free minds which requires tolerance and finally humility. Einstein was a kind, unpretentious, humble man. I really, really liked this book. I wish I could speak with Einstein himself. Even though he was great he would have talked to me. He was never showy or saw himself as the extraordinary person that he was.

Another interesting question: was he in his soul German or Swiss or American? I mean, in spirit. Or was he a citizen of the world?

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Edward Herrmann. The narration was clear and at a perfect speed. The science sections were hard. For those of you who are reading this to better understand physics, maybe it is better to read the paper book, where it is easier to stop and THINK! Oh, I forgot to say this – when Einstein got the Nobel Prize, which by the way was not for relativity, he explained his scientific theories over and over. When asked if others understood, most admitted they didn’t. This made me feel a lot better when I found myself becoming confused. I read the book to meet the man, and I really enjoyed it.
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LibraryThing member mrminjares
Albert Einstein to me was a philosopher, who used principally his imagination and logic to arrive at truths about the universe. These were physical and mathematical truths, but they were also social and moral truths.

In science, he made a series of brilliant discoveries in 1905 including revelations about light quanta, brownian motion, and relativity. Ten years later, with help from friends who understood non-Euclidean geometry, he put forward the general theory of relativity.

His theories of relativity were especially groundbreaking, since they showed that absolute time and absolute space do not exist. He showed that these things are relative, so that light and matter bend as gravity and acceleration increase. It was incredible for me to learn that Einstein was a poor mathematician, who had made these discoveries in his mind, but needed the math skills of others to put all of the necessary equations on paper to generate the necessary proofs.

How did Einstein achieve these discoveries? He had an incredible ability to visualize complex problems and their solutions. His general theory of relativity was derived in large measure from thought experiments which revealed to him ways in which acceleration and gravity are one and the same.

He was at heart a curious man, and also a free thinker who was repulsed by authority and dogma. Had he been a professor and not a patent clerk while pursuing his early investigations, his incentives to play it safe with his theories may have prevented such revolutionary ideas to appear in such rapid succession.

He was a fervent defender of free thought and free action, and saw the defense of these things as an essential role of government. He wore no socks, did not comb his hair, and cared little about what others thought of him. He held very strong views and was never hesitant to disagree and to state his reasons.

Einstein followed his incredible scientific accomplishments with a transition to a role as public proponent for social and moral ideals such as a world government with the ability to halt all wars. He was a pacifist who made early arguments against joining the military, then later advocated for the use of military purely for defense. He was also a proud Jew and advocate for a Jewish state, although he expressed concern about the ability of Jews to get along well with their Arab neighbors. He launched an international scientific initiative to prevent nuclear warfare.

But Einstein was at heart a kind soul, who was playful and curious as a child. He was humble, unpretentious, joking, witty, and tolerant. He was an artist, who wrote love poems to the women he loved. And he played the violin, especially pieces by Mozart, because the beauty of these things inspired him. He was a gentle man, who despite his incredible contributions to this world, wished that his ashes be spread on the Delaware River so that no one would venerate him. Still, his contributions live on.
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LibraryThing member ZoharLaor
I found this book fascinating and interesting, yet a bit more of a difficult read than Mr. Isaacson's biography of Benjamin Franklin. However, the author does a good job reconciling the physics genius with the rascally young ideologue and later with the icon we all think of when we hear the name "Einstein".

As in his other biographies, Isaacson brings forth wonderful little anecdotes through personal letters and stories which, I feel, let us separate the man from the myth and let us know what the man was truly like. The personal letters, quick wit and even tyrannical impulses let the reader understand this complex man as a man, not a pillar of the scientific community. Not only is the young Einstein a fascinating character, but the older one - the one who spent his life fighting authority only to become the authority - also comes alive.

As for science, this book is neither here nor there. If you understand some of the physics then it will be a nice review, if you don't then you won't understand it after finishing reading either. But that's not the point of the book anyway.

Personally I found the chapter about Einstein's religious beliefs fascinating and enlightening. If a few more people in the world feel like him, that science and religions are complimentary ("Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind") this world will be a more peaceful place.
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LibraryThing member bfrost
Einstein was an amazing character and this book gets right into his life. If never ceases to amaze me that so much of the experimentation of Einstein was done in his imagination. He conducted and tested his theories in thought experiments. Titled "His Life and Universe", the book places his many discoveries in the context of his private life and the circumstances of the society in which he was living. The stories of his struggles with racism and nazi opposition are prior to WW2 are engaging.

If you are like me and have trouble following the scientific stuff this book can be hard going. It is also very long. I was hoping it would contain some of the many quotes that are attributed to E. There were none.

The book is really helpful in getting the Einstein the Man - and is worth the read for that reason alone.
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LibraryThing member hcubic
What were personal qualities of the greatest scientist of the twentieth century that differentiated him from his contemporaries? I have read a lot of books about Albert Einstein, who was one of my childhood heroes (along with the Lone Ranger). We had a lot in common - the violin and physics, although he was said to enjoy music practice more than I did, and he was said to be tolerant of kids who liked science. I never got to meet my hero; he died when I was 15. None of those books that I have read about him, until this one by Walter Isaacson, satisfactorily addressed the the questions about the person behind the scientist that I longed to have answered. Even the author admits (on NPR) that there may be better popular books about Einstein's science, for example Abraham Pais' "Subtle is the Lord", but Walter Isaacson was the first writer to get access to Einstein's voluminous archive of personal correspondence. With that, he was able to put together the most intimate history available. The results are not all sweetness. Einstein was a pretty awful family man, and he had a sizable ego (although he tried to appear modest in public). Isaacson does a good job with the science, too. Despite not being a scientist himself, he acknowledges the help of some excellent physicists (including Brian Greene, Lawrence Krass, Douglas Stone, Murray Gell-Mann, David Mermin, and Gerald Holton, among others). With advisors like those, you can't go far wrong, and Isaacson doesn't. This is a book for you and your students.… (more)
LibraryThing member Cecrow
What a well-written book - bravo! Isaacson tackles a man known for complex ideas and produces an easy-to-read, to-the-point biography that respectfully captures Einstein's personal side as well as his scientific achievements, and briefly touches on many of his amazing contemporaries. I was able to grasp the scientific concepts conveyed about as well as I ever will, thanks to great metaphorical descriptions and examples. I'll enjoy being less in the dark when this scientist and his theories are referred to in the news - something that (coincidentally?) occurred several times during the month I was reading this. Some of the theory still goes over my head, but thanks to its presentation I could always appreciate the direction each step of Einstein's research and theories was taking. This being the only biography I've read about Einstein, I can't measure what it gained from the additional source material that was made available in 2006. But this author, a former Time editor, has earned my admiration for the remarkable restraint of his writing style and his avoidance of unnecessarily flowery script. He avoids temptation to exaggerate, even confessing in a few places that while such-and-such might make a better story, the truth is actually so-and-so. Clearly he admires his subject, but not to the extent of irrational hero-worship that would have made this a weaker product. Nearly a hundred pages of reference notes at the back of the volume testify to the amount of background research invested. I will definitely consider reading other biographies by Walter Isaacson, particularly the one of Benjamin Franklin.… (more)
LibraryThing member tbert204
Isaacson assembles a biography with enough details to make a high school English student puke, but it creates a complete picture of one of the world's most famous scientists. Einstein's charisma is clearly illustrated in this text, from personal relationships to his obsessive pursuit to explain the universe. It took me 6 weeks to read partly because I'm a slow reader, partly because the book is heavy, but mostly because I enjoyed the ride. I'm no physics major but managed to comprehend many of Isaacson's presentations of Einstein's theories and thought experiments, most of which I've forgotten by now. By and far, it was most satisfying to look inside his personal life, how he married his cousin (you read that right), never wore socks, was truly absent-minded, and was still working on his theories on his deathbed.… (more)
LibraryThing member itbgc
I loved reading this book except for one thing: The physics portions of the book were quite lengthy and so far over my head. Alas, I've never taken a physics class, which I regretted while reading this book.

I heartily recommend this book to others. It's a long book but well worth the time to read.… (more)
LibraryThing member NielsenGW
Isaacson was the first to has access to the entirety of Albert Einstein personal papers and manuscripts (held captive by long-time assistant Helen Dukas), and has now produced the best biography of the greatest thinker of our age. Einstein's ability to harmonize disparate theories, to fully and unabashedly apply Ockham's Razor, to see the simple in the complex, was the cornerstone of his genius. He blended light, gravity, space, and time, and created a new science for the world to use. His journey from unemployed teacher to international celebrity to pacifist extraordinaire is now completely told by an amazing storyteller. An excellent read.… (more)
LibraryThing member jcopenha
Loved it! The subject matter was great and Isaacson did a great job presenting it. I thought it was a fair treatment of Einstein, pointed out how his political and scientific views changed over the years. Along with his aloofness with relationships at time.
LibraryThing member dirac
Quite the good bio. Strange that so many people who know so little about him, blame him for so much. Sad really.
The read slowed down at times. Not sure if that was pacing or if it was my time constrictions. I did not know much about Mr. Einstein's personal world prior to reading this and it was a solid read...enjoyable.… (more)
LibraryThing member psiloiordinary
An excellent read. Enjoyable, thought provoking, touching and inspiring.

At six hundred odd pages including a comprehensive index and sources list this is not a quick read. Nevertheless, once I had started I did not consider the size of it until I reached the end, and then it was only in disappointment that I had finished already.

Sumptuous detail about the man and the times in which he lived. Human, frail even naive but with a fiercely glowing flame of character and strong basic principles of goodness.

So we get a fascinating view of a thoughtful and fundamentally peaceful man, living as best he can through a confused and violent period of history, with fame piled on to his shoulders together with the weight of the expectation of the easy and regular dispensation of wisdom in any area of human concern.

Some of the stranger aspects of his life, that I had previously read about, certainly seemed to make more sense when viewed in the totality of his life even though total empathy is impossible from the written word alone.

I also found this inspiring as someone trying to learn about science, and as a father.

Go read it.
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LibraryThing member NativeRoses
Recently finished Isaacson’s Einstein: His Life and Universe. Based on newly available Einstein papers, it’s dishy and gossipy while still capturing the social climate, academic politics, and culture of war that impacted much of Einstein’s life. It’s well crafted and i particularly enjoyed early sections on Einstein’s struggles and breakthroughs. i would have liked more science, but Isaacson does do a good job making the case that Einstein’s philosophy of science grew organically from youthful sass, curiosity, focus, imagination, and obstinate contrarianism.

Isaacson also shows the development of Einstein’s politics in a way that counters charges of naïveté and/or aloofness. The politics don’t seem nearly as dated as they might:

"In 1949 [Einstein] wrote an influential essay for the inaugural issue of the Monthly Review titled “Why Socialism?”

In it he argued that unrestrained capitalism produced great disparities of wealth, cycles of boom and depression, and festering levels of unemployment. The system encouraged selfishness instead of cooperation, and acquiring wealth rather than serving others. People were educated for careers rather than for a love of work and creativity. And political parties became corrupted by political contributions from owners of great capital.

These problems could be avoided, Einstein argued in his article, through a socialist economy, if it guarded against tyranny and centralization of power. “A planned economy, which adjusts production to the needs of the community, would distribute the work to be done among all those able to work and would guarantee a livelihood to every man, woman, and child,” he wrote. “The education of the individual, in addition to promoting his own innate abilities, would attempt to develop in him a sense of responsibility for his fellow-men in place of the glorification of power and success in our present society.”

He added, however, that planned economies faced the danger of becoming oppressive, bureaucratic, and tyrannical, as had happened in communist countries such as Russia. “A planned economy may be accompanied by the complete enslavement of the individual,” he warned. It was therefore important for social democrats who believed in individual liberty to face two critical questions: “How is it possible, in view of the far-reaching centralization of political and economic power, to prevent bureaucracy from becoming all-powerful and overweening? How can the rights of the individual be protected?”

That is imperative – to protect the rights of the individual – was Einstein’s most fundamental political tenet. Individualism and freedom were necessary for creative art and science to flourish. Personally, politically, and professionally, he was repulsed by any restraints."
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LibraryThing member bfertig
plenty in here for physicists, other scientists, and general readers - his life, his science, his times. I suppose he was man of the century for a reason. it's plenty readable, and there are some great quotes included. shame he had such a poor family life. I did enjoy the epilogue about his brain and its wanderings through the years - wish we had a better idea of what to do with it!… (more)
LibraryThing member GShuk
Great book that makes you understand why Einstein was as icon. It was three books in one. It was a biography, overview of his physics theories (in layman’s language) and impacts of being Jewish in Germany during world war one & two. What really surprised me was that he struggled to get a professorship as well as his impact on the world stage away from physics. He was a remarkable person for his accomplishments in physics and beyond and this book brought his story and the times in which he lived to life.… (more)
LibraryThing member alaskabookworm
Aside from a few painful descriptions of relativity theory and quantum physics, I absolutely loved this book. Though complex and imperfect, Einstein was both a genius and a true hero to humanity. HIghly, highly recommended. (I can hardly wait to read "Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein's Brain.")
LibraryThing member starkravingmad
Similar to Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs, this biogrpahy of Einstein, written four years earlier, is pleasingly similar. It's comprehensive and insighful with just the right balance of insight into physics and mathematics and Einstein's personal life. It was quite surprising to learn that most, if not all of Einstein's brilliant theories were developed before he was 30, yet his fame only increased as the years progressed. Though not a scientist, one can see why Isaacson chose Jobs as a next subject. They had very similar fame and celebrity from pure technical genius, and in Jobs' case, business genius as well..
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LibraryThing member cat-ballou
Ok, even though I complained about the deification of Einstein in Albert Einstein: Creator andRebel, it's totally my tendency to idolize him. I know, I'm just a ball of contradictions. I appreciate that Isaacson was able to keep him human by reminding me that he had faults - significant ones.
LibraryThing member nicky_too
At times I struggled with this book. Apparently Albert Einstein knew how to explain his theories in a simple way, Walter Isaacson doesn't know how to do that. Add to that the fact that I'm notoriously bad at anything scientific and you will see the problem.

Notwithstanding the obvious struggle, I did think this is a very interesting book. Before I bought this book I didn't know much (I should say: I knew nothing really) about Albert Einstein. All I had ever heard was the reputation that he was a difficult man, without emotion, scruffy, untidy. When I saw him on tv, I thought that couldn't be right. His eyes were too soft, friendly. That's when I decided I wanted to know more and this biography proves me right. He comes across as a very friendly and sweet person. Apparently he wasn't always an easy man, but who is? :-)
After all, I think he was a fascinating man and I'm glad I read this book.
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LibraryThing member jawalter
It's a little strange to read a biography of Albert Einstein, if only because he's such a larger-than-life figure that it seems as though we already know all about him. So I guess what I found most amusing about this book is just how accurate those preconceptions are. Genius? Check. Kind, charming, absent-minded professorial type? Check. Outsider and scientific rebel? Check.

Don't get me wrong, though. There's more to the man than the archetype, although the book doesn't dig too deeply. His distant relationships with friends and family, for example, are not something I ever would have imagined, although this makes sense when you think about it. It was also interesting to realize that aside from his miracle year of 1905 and his discovery of the general theory of relativity a decade or so later, he spent more time being wrong than right. On the one hand, this is just a consequence of being a scientist, but after changing physics in so many ways, it's more than a little disheartening to see the man refuse to accept the consequences of his theories: namely quantum mechanics. His quixotic quest for a unified field theory instead of participating in the debate over quantum physics seems like a great loss to scientific progress.

On a personal note, I was amused to find myself in complete agreement with Einstein on this matter. Despite all the evidence, I just can't convince myself to accept the non-causal universe mandated by quantum physics. I know I should just accept the findings of all the much more intelligent scientists who've concluded that we live in a world determined by probabilities rather than strict cause-and-effect mechanics, but I just can't convince myself to do it.
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LibraryThing member KirkLowery
Remarkably clear exposition of Einstein's theories for the general reader. It's an intellectual biography as much as a "life and times" bio. Very readable.
LibraryThing member krazy4katz
This was an amazing biography! So much has been written about Einstein but apparently Walter Isaacson pulled from additional source material that has only recently become available. His ability to put you inside Einstein's personality, his life, his relationships with his friends and family was — should I say it again? — amazing! He acknowledged help from many people, but put together what I would imagine is the most coherent description of Einstein's Theories of Special and General Relativity that is possible for us laymen to read and keep it exciting. The description of Einstein's reluctance to accept the basic principles of quantum mechanics and how he fought until the end of his life for a unifying theory was fascinating. Also the politics of the time, Einstein's enthusiastic and determined embrace of democracy and equality, his ardent pacifism, as well as his rather sad family situation were skillfully interwoven with the science. A long but definitely worthwhile read.… (more)



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