The Life Behind Einstein's World-Changing Ideas

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In Depth

The new biography Einstein: His Life and Universe is the first complete history of the theoretical physicist-turned-refugee to draw upon all of Einstein's papers, many of which were unsealed last summer.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

We all know Albert Einstein was smart, but Walter Isaacson's new biography of the famous physicist explains his convoluted path to genius: from the shy child who was slow to speak to the scientist who shook the world with his revolutionary theories on space, time, gravitation and energy. Einstein was working as a patent clerk in Bern, Switzerland, when in his spare time, he authored five papers that outlined his ideas.

NORRIS: His Life and Universe." The author, Walter Isaacson, stopped by our studios today to talk about his book and his painstaking research. He says Einstein's true genius lay in his creativity.

WALTER ISAACSON: He was different for most of the great scientists of his time. In fact, some were probably smarter than he was in pure mathematics - somebody like Henri Poincare or Lawrence or Max Planck. But what Einstein was able to do was - to use a cliché - think out of the box. He really did think differently from them, and he applied his creativity.

So when all of them were wondering why the speed of light always seems constant no matter how fast you're moving, it was Einstein who would be able to say, well, maybe because time slows down when you move fast that time is not an absolute.

NORRIS: He seemed to have an inner compass, even when people didn't seem to understand him and even when he was sort of purposely misunderstood. He knew that he was destined for something great. He seemed to sort of understand that, even though the world was sort of slow to catch on. Who set that compass for him?

ISAACSON: Well, let's talk about the compass, because it is a really beautiful tale that I learned, which is at age four or five, his dad gives him a compass. And he's stunned and impressed in awed by why that needle always points north. Now, you and I, Michele, remember getting compasses as kids, and we thought it was kind of cool, but we didn't sit there, you know, worrying about it with our hands sweating and saying, how does that magnet know to move?

What is the unseen field behind all of the things in this world? So he develops an appreciation for the unseen laws of nature. And that becomes his compass needle for the rest of his life. And he has a funny line, in a way, when they proved general relativity right, somebody says, what would you have felt if the experiment had turned out the other way? He said, I would have felt sorry for the good Lord...

NORRIS: Hmm.

ISAACSON: ...because the theory is correct.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NORRIS: Walter, his life has been examined many times over in scientific detail and popular literature. Why go to such an effort to understand this man, this scientist in particular, when there are so many other scientific visionaries whose lives are not well understood?

ISAACSON: Well, Einstein has had so many good books written, especially about his science. But to understand the relationship between his personality, the way his mind worked, the way he lived his life and how he did his science, to me, is inspirational. It also helps us understand what genius and creativity is. And I just wanted a good, comprehensive, you know, full biography of him that tried to weave together the political, the personal and the scientific.

NORRIS: There's been much speculation over the years on what one columnist called the relative importance of Mrs. Einstein, the question of whether she was a full-fledged collaborator in his work. What did you come to conclude about this?

ISAACSON: Mileva Maric, who was the first wife of Albert Einstein, was a brooding, wonderful Serbian physics and math student with Einstein when they studied together in college in Zurich. They fell madly in love. They had an illegitimate child that they put up for adoption. Finally, they get married when he gets a job. He has trouble getting a job. He finally gets a job as a third class examiner in a patent office.

And while he's working in the patent office, on his spare time, he's doing these four or five papers that will totally transform physics. And she's helping him check the math, to some extent being a sounding board, and helping him get the papers together. But the ideas are Einstein's, because you now look at all the letters, it wasn't as if she was coming up with the theories. But she really did help, and frankly, had to put up with him during that period, which was hard to do.

Finally, when they're getting a divorce, he still doesn't have enough money to afford a divorce. But he says to her, one of these days, one of those 1905 papers is going to win the Nobel Prize. And when it does, if you give me a divorce, I will give you the money. She thinks about it for a week. She consults with a lawyer and a physicist, and finally decides to take the bet. And in 1922, when he's awarded the Nobel Prize, she collects and she buys three apartment buildings in Zurich.

NORRIS: This pursuit of a Unified Theory, why was that so important to him, to create a sort of order for the universe?

ISAACSON: He really believed in bringing things together. He felt that if you could get a Unified Theory, it would take the theories that he had developed of relativity, and then the new theories of quantum mechanics that had arisen based on Einstein's earlier work, and they were incompatible. And when he saw two incompatible theories, he got very nervous. He just didn't like it.

And so he was almost driven, compelled by his own inner nature to try to tidy up things and figure out isn't there a Unified Theory that explains things? He was also uncomfortable with the uncertainties and probabilities that a part of quantum mechanics. And he felt some Unified Theory might bring back rigid determinism and causality, which he loved in science.

NORRIS: Was there also a social or religious aspect to this, that he was concerned about the possible explanations of the alternative?

ISAACSON: What he really felt was that there were laws that govern things. He was a realist, as we would say. Even if you couldn't observe the laws or observe the things that somehow there were underlying laws, and it was our goal to find the harmony of nature. And he had a religious belief in the harmony of nature. He said that the good Lord had made harmonious laws in the universe. It was like a child walking into a library, and you know the books are ordered, and it's our job to find out how the good Lord ordered them.

NORRIS: He managed to hold on to a sense of wonder and joy. In reading this, it seemed that there was a bit of a young Albert Einstein even in the very old man.

ISAACSON: Mm-hmm. He would say to a friend, you and I were made like children our entire lives, and that's what makes life so wonderful. We retain that child-like awe. It's just like looking at that compass when he was four or five years old. He had a child-like awe about everything. And that's what is the beauty of great of science, that somebody like an Isaac Newton could feel awe as an apple falls, or a Galileo could feel awe at how two things dropping accelerate the same speed, or Einstein feels awe about a field theory.

And it's a child-like sense of wonder that is a true component of their genius.

NORRIS: There is a common picture, you'll see it in college dormitories all across the country, perhaps all across the world - Albert Einstein riding a bicycle with a sort of quizzical look on his face. After spending so much time with his letters, doing this research, how true is that image to the man that you've come to know?

ISAACSON: It's very true, because he was a person who loved fun, was very genial. And he writes a letter to his son, which I quote with that picture in my book, which is "Life is like riding a bicycle, in order to keep your balance, you must keep moving." And that was in 1930 Albert Einstein to his son, and that's what he kind of felt about life, that we were peddling, trying to keep our balance, but that we should enjoy life.

NORRIS: Walter, thanks so much for coming in to talk to us.

ISAACSON: It's great being with you again, Michele.

NORRIS: Walter Isaacson is the author of "Einstein: His Life and Universe."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NORRIS: You can read an excerpt from the book, where Walter Isaacson outlines the reasons why Einstein became a scientific supernova. That's at our Web site, npr.org.

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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Excerpt: 'Einstein'

Cover of 'Einstein'

From Chapter 1: The Light-Beam Rider

Looking back at a century that will be remembered for its willingness to break classical bonds, and looking ahead to an era that seeks to nurture the creativity needed for scientific innovation, one person stands out as a paramount icon of our age: the kindly refugee from oppression whose wild halo of hair, twinkling eyes, engaging humanity, and extraordinary brilliance made his face a symbol and his name a synonym for genius. Albert Einstein was a locksmith blessed with imagination and guided by a faith in the harmony of nature's handiwork. His fascinating story, a testament to the connection between creativity and freedom, reflects the triumphs and tumults of the modern era.

Now that his archives have been completely opened, it is possible to explore how the private side of Einstein — his nonconformist personality, his instincts as a rebel, his curiosity, his passions and detachments — intertwined with his political side and his scientific side. Knowing about the man helps us understand the wellsprings of his science, and vice versa. Character and imagination and creative genius were all related, as if part of some unified field.

Despite his reputation for being aloof, he was in fact passionate in both his personal and scientific pursuits. At college he fell madly in love with the only woman in his physics class, a dark and intense Serbian named Mileva Maric. They had an illegitimate daughter, then married and had two sons. She served as a sounding board for his scientific ideas and helped to check the math in his papers, but eventually their relationship disintegrated. Einstein offered her a deal. He would win the Nobel Prize someday, he said; if she gave him a divorce, he would give her the prize money. She thought for a week and accepted. Because his theories were so radical, it was seventeen years after his miraculous outpouring from the patent office before he was awarded the prize and she collected.

Einstein's life and work reflected the disruption of societal certainties and moral absolutes in the modernist atmosphere of the early twentieth century. Imaginative nonconformity was in the air: Picasso, Joyce, Freud, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and others were breaking conventional bonds. Charging this atmosphere was a conception of the universe in which space and time and the properties of particles seemed based on the vagaries of observations.

Einstein, however, was not truly a relativist, even though that is how he was interpreted by many, including some whose disdain was tinged by anti-Semitism. Beneath all of his theories, including relativity, was a quest for invariants, certainties, and absolutes. There was a harmonious reality underlying the laws of the universe, Einstein felt, and the goal of science was to discover it.

His quest began in 1895, when as a 16-year-old he imagined what it would be like to ride alongside a light beam. A decade later came his miracle year, described in the letter above, which laid the foundations for the two great advances of twentieth-century physics: relativity and quantum theory.

A decade after that, in 1915, he wrested from nature his crowning glory, one of the most beautiful theories in all of science, the general theory of relativity. As with the special theory, his thinking had evolved through thought experiments. Imagine being in an enclosed elevator accelerating up through space, he conjectured in one of them. The effects you'd feel would be indistinguishable from the experience of gravity.

Gravity, he figured, was a warping of space and time, and he came up with the equations that describe how the dynamics of this curvature result from the interplay between matter, motion, and energy. It can be described by using another thought experiment. Picture what it would be like to roll a bowling ball onto the two-dimensional surface of a trampoline. Then roll some billiard balls. They move toward the bowling ball not because it exerts some mysterious attraction but because of the way it curves the trampoline fabric. Now imagine this happening in the four-dimensional fabric of space and time. Okay, it's not easy, but that's why we're no Einstein and he was.

The exact midpoint of his career came a decade after that, in 1925, and it was a turning point. The quantum revolution he had helped to launch was being transformed into a new mechanics that was based on uncertainties and probabilities. He made his last great contributions to quantum mechanics that year but, simultaneously, began to resist it. He would spend the next three decades, ending with some equations scribbled while on his deathbed in 1955, stubbornly criticizing what he regarded as the incompleteness of quantum mechanics while attempting to subsume it into a unified field theory.

Both during his thirty years as a revolutionary and his subsequent thirty years as a resister, Einstein remained consistent in his willingness to be a serenely amused loner who was comfortable not conforming. Independent in his thinking, he was driven by an imagination that broke from the confines of conventional wisdom. He was that odd breed, a reverential rebel, and he was guided by a faith, which he wore lightly and with a twinkle in his eye, in a God who would not play dice by allowing things to happen by chance.

Einstein's nonconformist streak was evident in his personality and politics as well. Although he subscribed to socialist ideals, he was too much of an individualist to be comfortable with excessive state control or centralized authority. His impudent instincts, which served him so well as a young scientist, made him allergic to nationalism, militarism, and anything that smacked of a herd mentality. And until Hitler caused him to revise his geopolitical equations, he was an instinctive pacifist who celebrated resistance to war.

His tale encompasses the vast sweep of modern science, from the infinitesimal to the infinite, from the emission of photons to the expansion of the cosmos. A century after his great triumphs, we are still living in Einstein's universe, one defined on the macro scale by his theory of relativity and on the micro scale by a quantum mechanics that has proven durable even as it remains disconcerting.

His fingerprints are all over today's technologies. Photoelectric cells and lasers, nuclear power and fiber optics, space travel, and even semiconductors all trace back to his theories. He signed the letter to Franklin Roosevelt warning that it may be possible to build an atom bomb, and the letters of his famed equation relating energy to mass hover in our minds when we picture the resulting mushroom cloud.

Einstein's launch into fame, which occurred when measurements made during a 1919 eclipse confirmed his prediction of how much gravity bends light, coincided with, and contributed to, the birth of a new celebrity age. He became a scientific supernova and humanist icon, one of the most famous faces on the planet. The public earnestly puzzled over his theories, elevated him into a cult of genius, and canonized him as a secular saint.

If he did not have that electrified halo of hair and those piercing eyes, would he still have become science's preeminent poster boy? Suppose, as a thought experiment, that he had looked like a Max Planck or a Niels Bohr. Would he have remained in their reputational orbit, that of a mere scientific genius? Or would he still have made the leap into the pantheon inhabited by Aristotle, Galileo, and Newton?

The latter, I believe, is the case. His work had a very personal character, a stamp that made it recognizably his, the way a Picasso is recognizably a Picasso. He made imaginative leaps and discerned great principles through thought experiments rather than by methodical inductions based on experimental data. The theories that resulted were at times astonishing, mysterious, and counterintuitive, yet they contained notions that could capture the popular imagination: the relativity of space and time, E=mc2, the bending of light beams, and the warping of space.

Adding to his aura was his simple humanity. His inner security was tempered by the humility that comes from being awed by nature. He could be detached and aloof from those close to him, but toward mankind in general he exuded a true kindness and gentle compassion.

Yet for all of his popular appeal and surface accessibility, Einstein also came to symbolize the perception that modern physics was something that ordinary laymen could not comprehend, "the province of priest-like experts," in the words of Harvard professor Dudley Herschbach. It was not always thus. Galileo and Newton were both great geniuses, but their mechanical cause-and-effect explanation of the world was something that most thoughtful folks could grasp. In the eighteenth century of Benjamin Franklin and the nineteenth century of Thomas Edison, an educated person could feel some familiarity with science and even dabble in it as an amateur.

A popular feel for scientific endeavors should, if possible, be restored given the needs of the twenty-first century. This does not mean that every literature major should take a watered-down physics course or that a corporate lawyer should stay abreast of quantum mechanics. Rather, it means that an appreciation for the methods of science is a useful asset for a responsible citizenry. What science teaches us, very significantly, is the correlation between factual evidence and general theories, something well illustrated in Einstein's life.

From Einstein by Walter Isaacson. Copyright (c) 2007 by Walter Isaacson. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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