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Walter Isaacson’s biography of Einstein

In 1905, when he was just 26 years old and working as a clerk in the Swiss patent office in Bern, he wrote four scientific papers that would forever change the way humanity comprehends some of the most fundamental laws of nature:

  • First, he demonstrated that light comes in specific quantities or packets, called quanta, later to be called photons, and this discovery helped explain the photoelectric effect, which is what happens when light bounces off an object. This disproved the long-held belief in “ether,” or a substance in space through which light waves were thought to travel.
  • He helped prove the existence of molecules and how they can be measured, and he showed how the existence of molecules explains Brownian motion, or the vibrations of particles suspended in liquid.
  • He then put forth his theory of Special Relativity, in which he disproved Isaac Newton’s concept of absolute time. According to Einstein, measurements of time, and also of space and distance, are relative to the motion of the observer. He said that there can be no absolute time or absolute space, but something he called spacetime.
  • Next, Einstein came up with the principle of mass-energy equivalence, as expressed in the most famous formula in all of science, e=mc2, in which e is energy, m is mass and c is the speed of light. The equation means that energy can be converted to mass and vice versa. Decades later this formula would lay the foundation for the development of nuclear weapons. More on that in a moment.

Albert Einstein came up with all four of these scientific breakthroughs in a single year, known as his “annus mirabilis” or “miracle year,” in his spare time. That’s because his day job was that of patent clerk, a position he had settled for after being unable to get a job as a professor following his graduation from university in Zurich. Despite having set the scientific world on fire, he remained relatively unknown and even kept his patent clerk job for several more years.

Einstein book review
“Einstein: His Life and Universe” by Walter Isaacson


This is according to “Einstein: His Life and Universe” by Walter Isaacson, a book that describes, in 551 pages, not only Einstein’s many theories but his entire life story as well. For me as a reader, I must admit I found much of the science in this book difficult to understand. Come to think of it, I was actually quite baffled. The chapters on his life and times were much more enjoyable.

Albert Einstein was a theoretical physicist. He was born in Germany in 1879. He was a Jew. When he was a boy he was given a compass, which fascinated him. When he was still in his teens he moved to Switzerland and renounced his German citizenship. This might have been to avoid compulsory military service. According to the book, Einstein did not like military parades, soldiers marching in the street or any such glorification of war. He also shunned blind deference to authority. He questioned everything.

He was “stateless” for five years after moving to Switzerland, at which time he became a Swiss citizen. He attended the Swiss federal polytechnic institute in Zurich. He married and would later divorce Mileva Maric, a fellow student who was from Serbia. She was a Christian. They had two sons, Hans Albert Einstein and Eduard Einstein. According to the book, he and Mileva also had a daughter, who apparently either died at a very young age or was given up for adoption. His second wife was Elsa, who was his cousin. She had two daughters, one of whom would eventually live with Einstein. For many decades Einstein had a live-in secretary, Helen Dukas, who was with him constantly and served as his gatekeeper. Einstein also had several mistresses over the years, sometimes in plain view of his wife.

After leaving the job at the patent office, Einstein held several teaching positions and eventually landed at the Prussian Academy of Sciences, in Berlin, where many of the world’s brightest minds then held court. But to go there he had to become a German citizen again. It was from there that he put forth his theory of General Relativity, in which he said, among other things, that gravity happens when objects bend the fabric of spacetime. He also predicted that light from another star would be bent by the Sun’s gravity, and in May 1919, during an eclipse, this was tested and proven to be true. The results were published on the front pages of newspapers around the world, thus making Einstein an overnight global celebrity. From then on his name would be synonymous with the word “genius.”

In 1921 Einstein made his first trip to the United States, at the invitation of Chaim Weizmann, then president of the World Zionist Organization. Everywhere he went Einstein was greeted by large crowds and inquisitive reporters. Einstein played the part of the friendly professor and answered the reporters’ questions with quick, snappy lines delivered with a grin.

In subsequent visits to the United States, Einstein attended the opera, went to a Hollywood film premiere with Charlie Chaplin, was feted with statues, awards and keys to cities, and he spoke at universities. For a time, Einstein expressed pacifist views and even encouraged all who would listen to shun compulsory military service. But when the Nazis came to power in Germany, Einstein’s views on pacifism and conscientious objection to the draft changed. For the second time he renounced his German citizenship. In 1933 Einstein sought refuge, first in Great Britain and then in the United States, accepting a position at Princeton University in New Jersey. He had also been courted by the California Institute of Technology. Einstein spent the rest of his life in the United States. He became a U.S. citizen in 1940. He died in 1955.

At the outset of World War II, Einstein, with the help of another scientist, Leo Szilard, wrote a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt warning that it would be possible to use uranium in a chain reaction that would release an unimaginable amount of energy. The letter was hand delivered to FDR and was read aloud to him. After that and a follow-up letter from Einstein, the president established the top-secret Manhattan Project, which would result in the development of nuclear weapons. Einstein himself did not work on the bomb, Robert Oppenheimer and many other scientists led that effort. When Germany’s defeat in the war seemed imminent, Einstein wrote FDR yet another letter calling for caution in deploying the weapon, but FDR died before he received it and the letter instead went to President Harry S. Truman, who passed it to a subordinate.

Einstein had brought the possibility of a bomb to the attention of FDR because he thought the German scientists back in Berlin would certainly be working on one themselves, but when he learned that was not the case he regretted his decision for the rest of his life. After World War II Einstein spoke out in favor of arms control, and for the establishment of a world government. He wanted a body that would be stronger that the United Nations turned out to be, something with a military force, which he considered necessary to prevent future wars and human annihilation. Isaacson quotes Einstein, speaking to Newsweek magazine, “Had I known that the Germans would not succeed in producing an atomic bomb, I never would have lifted a finger.”

Here are some additional facts about Albert Einstein:

  • He thought visually, and he conceived of his theories largely in visual terms. He often used “thought experiments” to develop his ideas.
  • He was a creative thinker who was similar in many ways to those who revolutionized other fields, such as Sigmund Freud in psychology and Pablo Picasso in art.
  • According to the book, he was not an atheist.
  • Nor was he a communist. But he was investigated by J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI, which kept a file on him.
  • He believed in social and economic justice, as well as personal freedom. He was skeptical of the socialist revolution when it began in Russia because he felt it would be repressive and authoritarian.
  • In general, he was good natured and friendly, although he could be emotionally distant and even a bit cruel to those close to him. According to the book, he was especially mean at times to his first wife.
  • He had wild, unruly hair. It was part of his image of a disheveled scientist. He could also be forgetful and often misplaced his keys or train tickets.
  • He played the violin.
  • He also enjoyed sailing.
  • He had many lifelong friends and scientific colleagues.
  • One of his friends was Queen Elisabeth (later the Queen Mother) of Belgium.
  • When his first wife originally refused to give him a divorce, Einstein was able to persuade her by promising to give her the money should he win the Nobel Prize at a future date.
  • Einstein won the Nobel Prize in 1921, not for relativity but for his work on the photoelectric effect. Isaacson’s book explains all the drama and politics of how that happened.
  • Originally Einstein had written his famous formula as L=mv2, but he later changed it to E=mc2 to comply with more common symbols.
  • Before collaborating with Szilard on the letter to FDR, the two patented a refrigerator.
  • Both of his stepdaughters had husbands who wrote books about Einstein.
  • After the death of Weizmann, who had become the first president of Israel, Einstein was offered the presidency of Israel, but he politely and firmly declined.
  • After Einstein’s death, in a ghastly act, his brain was preserved in a jar and was later experimented on by various scientists, none of whom ever learned anything significant.
  • The theoretical physicist is portrayed in the musical “Einstein’s Dreams,” currently running Off-Broadway, which, in my opinion (I went to see it last weekend) was completely wrong scientifically and on many other levels. It is based on a book of the same name.
  • In the movies, Walter Matthau gives what I consider to be a much more enjoyable portrayal of Einstein is in the 1994 film “I.Q.,” also starring Meg Ryan and Tim Robbins.

Also during Einstein’s lifetime the field of quantum mechanics took shape. This is the study of atoms and subatomic particles. In his own mind Einstein was troubled by many of these discoveries, which were made by Niels Bohr and many other scientists. That’s because determining the location of an electron around the nucleus of an atom required the use of probabilities, which caused Einstein to utter his immortal words that God does not “play dice” with the universe!

Another facet of quantum mechanics is known as entanglement, which is an observed phenomenon in which two particles that have interacted with each other will have opposite properties even when far apart from each other. Einstein called this “Spooky Action at a Distance,” which is a term still in use today — google it or look it up on YouTube!

Einstein spent the final years of his life thinking and working on a theory that would reconcile relativity with quantum mechanics. It’s an effort that continues to this day.

For me, reading “Einstein: His Life and Universe” was a nice little peek into the world of theoretical physics. I think I might understand some of this stuff a little better now, but I am not sure. But it was still fun to read about, and I am glad I did. This was the second biography I have read by historian Walter Isaacson, who is the former managing editor of Time magazine. Earlier I also read his book on Benjamin Franklin, which was fantastic in my opinion. Isaacson also wrote a biography of Steve Jobs, which I do not plan to read, and another of Leonardo DaVinci, which I certainly will at a future date.

Ready Freddie

I caught the new Queen/Freddie Mercury biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” over the weekend, and I thought it was fantastic. I was deeply moved and in tears through most of the two-hour-plus running time. Rami Malek was so, so good, and I hope he wins the Oscar for this. The movie focuses on the history of the band, their creative process, touring, dealing with record company executives, and Freddie’s private life. The culmination is the band’s legendary performance at Live Aid in 1985, where they brought their “stadium rock” show to Wembley in London.

Freddie MercuryIn the opening credits Brian May (he’s the guitar player with the big hair) and Roger Taylor (the drummer) are listed as producers, so we can assume this is the their official version of how they want the story to be told. According to the movie, the song “Bohemian Rhapsody” was all Freddie. But “We Will Rock You” was Brian May’s idea, and “Another One Bites the Dust” came from bass player John Deacon.

Also according to the movie, Freddie proposed marriage to his female companion, Mary, and gave her a ring, but as he began to record and tour with Queen he became distant from her. He developed relationships with men, both fleeting and longer lasting. At one point he confides to her, “I think I am bisexual” and she says, “No, Freddie, you’re gay.” Even back in the 1970s, everyone knew Freddie Mercury was gay. But it was a different era then. This was before Ellen. Before RuPaul. Before Gus Kenworthy. Celebrities just did not come out. At Live Aid, Freddie wore a white tank top, skintight jeans, sneakers, a studded black leather armband and a thick mustache. You could not get any gayer than that, if you ask me!

For those who do not remember, Queen’s 22-minute set during Live Aid was phenomenal. It’s really easy to find the complete performance on YouTube. According to this article in the New York Times, the band had rehearsed extensively for the show and, unbeknownst to all at the time, they had someone on the soundboard turn up the volume a few notches for their performance. The crowd went wild. The movie ends at this high point.

The band had never been more popular. A year later they toured with a new album and returned to Wembley for another huge show, followed by a live album. In subsequent years they continued to record new albums, but by the time they released “Innuendo” Freddie’s health had deteriorated and touring was out of the question. Just before Freddie died in 1991, he issued a statement disclosing to the world that he had AIDS. I am still in mourning over his death all those years ago.

Of all the entertainers who died of AIDS and there were many, it is Freddie’s way-too-early departure that stings the most.


2001: A Space Odyssey

Fred Michmershuizen

It’s hard to believe this film came out in 1968, which is a year before the first moon landing and nine years before Star Wars. I had the great pleasure of seeing the special 50th anniversary screening yesterday with Alan Treiber in the original 70mm, down at Village East, in Auditorium 1. We got there 45 minutes early and the place was already starting to fill up with (mostly) nerds like ourselves. What an experience.

Before it started the projectionist appeared and made an announcement, that it would start with music, then the film would start, followed by an intermission, then more music and the conclusion of the film. This is the way audiences would have experienced it.

Again I cannot get over what seeing this when it first came out would have been like in a world before space travel had become a reality, before cellphones and iPads, before cable TV. I had never seen this before in a movie theater, and I am so glad I did. Thank you Alan!