New Biography Focuses on Einstein's Creativity In his new biography of Albert Einstein, author Walter Isaacson argues that it was Einstein's creativity, not his mathematical genius, that led him to his great discoveries. Isaacson discusses his new book.
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New Biography Focuses on Einstein's Creativity

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New Biography Focuses on Einstein's Creativity

New Biography Focuses on Einstein's Creativity

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In his new biography of Albert Einstein, writer Walter Isaacson shows how a combination of freedom and creativity shaped the life and work of Einstein. And while it seems like Einstein can sometimes get reduced to a cliche, the crazy-haired mad scientist straight from Central Casting - actually, Central Casting was created from Einstein.

Einstein's life is a rich history, very rich - almost a soap opera at times -filled with personal failures, political leanings, religious ponderings. And joining me now to talk more about Einstein is the author, Walter Isaacson, of "Einstein: His Life and Universe."

He is president of the Aspen Institute, a think tank that explores leadership issues. He's also former managing editor of Time magazine, former head of CNN. His previous books include the best-selling "Ben Franklin: An American Life." And he joins us from the studios of Aspen Public Radio. Thanks for being with us today, Walter.

Mr. WALTER ISAACSON (Author, "Einstein: His Life and Universe"; President and CEO, The Aspen Institute): Thank you very much, Ira. I'm a big fan of you and your show, so it's an honor.

FLATOW: Thank you. You know, you hit upon one of - two of my most favorite scientists. Now, Dudley Herschbach, who won the Pulitzer Prize in Chemistry, called Ben Franklin probably the best American scientist - best scientist America had to offer. And then you have Albert Einstein. You hit the two big jackpot there.

Mr. ISAACSON: They were both so creative.


Mr. ISAACSON: You know, when I was writing about Franklin when I realized -through Dudley Herschbach, who is a truly wonderful individual - that Franklin was a great scientist and that educated people in Franklin's time love science. And so I decided that - that's what turned me on to trying to do something like Einstein.

FLATOW: Anything similar between the two?

Mr. ISAACSON: They're very different, in most ways, on the surface because Franklin was a great experimentalist. He loved doing those electricity experiments. Now, we think flying the kite in the rain - he was some doddering old guy. But those were serious experiments about the single fluid theory of electricity. But he didn't really care that much for the theory. He said you don't really need to understand Newton's theory to realize if you let go of your crockery, it will fall to the earth and break.

Einstein, on the other hand, was a pretty bad experimentalist. He hated being in the lab. But he was a great theorist. So it's a way to look at theory versus experimentalism and how our minds work creatively in both fields.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. There's so much mythology about Einstein, and I noticed on the cover of your book, you used a photo of Einstein that at least shows a little bit of the dark hair that he once had. Because all the pictures we see of Einstein are him in his later years, when he really came to his work. You know, he did all his work when he was a young guy with black hair.

Mr. ISAACSON: You know, yeah. We forget that he was a young, cool dude for a while, and that when he was patent clerk in, you know, Berne, Switzerland, in 1905, you know, he was only in his mid-20s. And so I wanted to show him as a young, vibrant individual not as this icon with the halo of hair and piercing eyes that we remember in his later photographs.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Talking with Walter Isaacson.

Mr. ISAACSON: By the way, Ira, let me…

FLATOW: Yeah. Sure.

Mr. ISAACSON: Now, let me just say that picture - because you've mentioned it, you know, that picture of him looking young - that's the day he arrives in America for the first time on his first trip to America in 1921. He's standing on the deck of the boat arriving at the battery and smiling with those twinkling eyes. So I think that captures a little bit of it too.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And he arrived here because he was escaping the Nazis?

Mr. ISAACSON: No, no. This was actually just in 1921. He arrived but…

FLATOW: And that's before that. Sure.

Mr. ISAACSON: Yeah, he was afraid. They have just proven correct his general theory of relativity. And he arrived because Chaim Weizmann said why don't you come to America because there's anti-Semitism that's growing up in Germany right now that's attacking your theories. That's going to be a problem, and we need to raise money for Jewish scholars.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And a lot of people think of him as a mathematician. He wasn't such a great mathematician and it's not really what drove his work, was it?

Mr. ISAACSON: Especially not in the beginning.


Mr. ISAACSON: He was good in math. It's a total myth that he failed math in high school. Unfortunately, you kind of want those myths to be true, you know, because it'd be kind of inspiring.

FLATOW: Yeah, yeah, I know.

Mr. ISAACSON: But what he was able to do was realize that an equation was just the good Lord's brush stroke for painting something in reality. So he could picture the underlying reality behind a mathematical equation. For example, he looks at Max Planck's equation that describe radiation. And Planck, as you know, he put in a little constant called - we now call it Planck's constant. Didn't quite know what it was, called at a mathematical contrivance. Einstein looks at those equations and says, that's because light is a particle as well as a wave. And that was a fundamental quantum theory that Einstein comes up within 1905, explaining the mathematical - the reality behind mathematical equations of Planck.

FLATOW: Now, we know that all scientists are smarter than we are, so to speak. But they sometimes - and many of the good ones, but I have to say most of the good ones - have some personality trait about them that allows them to stand out among the rest. What was Einstein's personality trait?

Mr. ISAACSON: I think he had two of them. First of all, he was rebellious. He gets kicked out of school at one point for undermining the authority of the headmaster. But if he didn't undermined and questioned authority, I don't think he would have been the type of person who have said, well, maybe Newton is wrong when he says time marches along independent of our observation of it, as Newton says in the first book of the "Principia." He was always challenging authorities.

Secondly, he was not a very good verbal learner or a wrote learner, so he's thought in pictures in these visual thought experiments, sort of what you and I call daydreaming. Well, we're not Einstein. But he gets to picture things, like, what would it be look to be in a fast moving train with lightning striking. And that visualization and rebelliousness, I think, add to his creativity.

FLATOW: And it's certainly helped him out later in life. I mean…

Mr. ISAACSON: Yes. You know, you see it in his politics and personal life.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. ISAACSON: What I tried to do in this biography because there're great science books written about Einstein. You have somebody who wants a great scientific biography as Abraham Pais, "Subtle is the Lord," and many others, Jeremy Bernstein. But for me, I wanted to weave together the personality, the personal life, the political thought and the science, and in every one of those, you see a willingness to challenge authority and be nonconformist.

For example, becoming finally a professor at the University of Berlin in 1914 and deciding to be a pacifist. You know, not many people were in Berlin at that point deciding to be pacifists as World War I was breaking out.

FLATOW: Talking with Walter Isaacson, author of "Einstein: His Life and Universe." And is a great read. There are a lot of books out about Einstein, but this - Walter, you've done a good job in a lot - in a way, you've been able to weave that story together.

Mr. ISAACSON: Thank you.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. He also - but he wasn't - you're talking about his personal life, he wasn't such a great father, was he?

Mr. ISAACSON: No. You know, when you and I say we lament that we're never quite as smart as an Einstein or as a Franklin, at least I can tell my wife and my daughter and son, I'm a little bit better of a family person than they were. Einstein, especially between 1905 and 1915, where he's doing his theory of relativity, is rather cold to his family.

As we know from the new letters, he had an illegitimate daughter with his girlfriend at the time, who he later married. But they put her up for adoption. Einstein doesn't even see the daughter. He is more interested in his work. And, of course, that seems very cold and callous. But I bet you, you and I know people, who, early in their career, were a little bit more interested in their work than in their family.

By the - after 1915, after he's finished the general theory, he mellows quite a bit, reconciles even with his first wife even though he's remarried, reconciles with his sons. And he becomes a little bit more warm as a family man.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. You mentioned these new letters that were released. Tell us about it. That was - it was probably one of the catalysts of you writing the book, I would imagine.

Mr. ISAACSON: Yes. I decided to write the book early on when we were debating at Time magazine who should be person of the century, and people were pushing Churchill or Roosevelt or Gandhi. And I kept saying, no, no. Einstein. It was a century of science and technology. And I realized that there were a lot of great books on Einstein but a good, sort of narrative biography, was something that seemed interesting to me.

And I discovered that there were set of letters, about 3,500 very personal letters and documents that had been put under seal by his stepdaughter 20 years ago. And she said that they had to remain under seal until the end of - until 2006. And so, when I realized that those letters were going to be opened in 2006, I got some early access to the letters - but I couldn't use them until they were public - and began to use that as sort of a timing and shaping of this biography. It's mainly the letters about his family, his kids, his girlfriends, his two wives, stuff like that, that his stepdaughter thought probably ought to remain sealed until everybody had died.

FLATOW: Speaking of letters, people used to write him letters and then he use to write back to people.

Mr. ISAACSON: You know, this is what I missed. I've been here at the Aspen - and see, we're talking about the digital age. One of the things I miss when you're writing about either Benjamin Franklin, with 40 volumes of letters; of the great Einstein papers project out at Cal Tech, in which they're compiling all of his writings and letters, you can walk in the footsteps and read the minds of these people because they're writing 20 or 30 letters or diary entries a day.

FLATOW: Yeah. We don't have - we have e-mail now.

Mr. ISAACSON: Yeah. And we probably, you know, a hundred years from now and historians want to write your biography, Ira, you know, they won't be able to retrieve your e-mails. It will all be in some open-source software, you know, black hole.

FLATOW: Both pages. 1-800-989-8255. If Einstein were alive today, you know, we don't have an icon like he was back in the day, do we? There is no icon, Einstein icon.

Mr. ISAACSON: No, we don't have an icon. Science is much more of a collaborative endeavor. We have really great scientists. We have people like Stephen Hawking, who come close to, you know, capturing the public imagination. But another thing that I thought about when I did this book was that around 1905 to 1950, when Einstein was in his full flower, there was a burst of creativity everywhere, with people questioning the classic way of thinking -whether it was Stravinsky and Schoenberg doing it in music; or Proust and Joyce doing it in breaking the boundaries of space and time in literature; or Picasso, as Arthur I. Miller says in "Einstein, Picasso," you watch Picasso doing it in art. And I think it was a more rebellious, more creative period. And at the moment, we don't have great icons in any of those fields.

FLATOW: And we don't have people who we hold scientists - science, have to be iconic any more.

Mr. ISAACSON: No, and that's why I wrote this book. I think, you know, I watch people holding up sports heroes, military heroes, politicians, and whatever and writing, you know, paeons to them. I wanted my daughter, and I wanted, you know, myself, my friends, to say, hey, by the way, a scientist can be a really cool hero.

FLATOW: Yeah. I remember reading the history of Thomas Edison. Turn of the century, a hundred years ago, Thomas Edison was the go-to guy. Everybody wanted to be around him.

Mr. ISAACSON: And not only that. In the 19th century of Thomas Edison, a person like himself could believe that an educated man would be considered a philistine if he say, well, I can't dabble in science and I know nothing about science. And likewise, in the time of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, no educated person would go around bragging they didn't know anything about science because people like Franklin and Jefferson believed it was important to understand the beauty of science.

And nowadays, you sometimes have this disconnect with science, not among the listeners of your show, but among the general population, where they feel kind of intimidated by science. And I wanted to try to do a tiny bit to overcome that as well, which is, hey, read about an interesting guy. You know, understand a little bit more about the physics of the 20th century and it'll be good. It's beautiful.

FLATOW: All right. We have to go. Stay with us. We'll be right back after this break and talk more with Walter Isaacson's, "Einstein: His Life and Universe." Stay with us.

I'm Ira Flatow, this is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking with Walter Isaacson, author of "Einstein: His Life and Universe." Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Boyd(ph) in Milwaukee. Hi, there.

BOYD (Caller): Hi, Ira. Thanks for taking my call. And hello, Mr. Isaacson. I first have to say, hey, this is a great interview. It's phenomenal. And I wanted to also let both of you know I plan on reading a number of books about Einstein, but also about Franklin. And Mr. Isaacson, both of those are on my list.

My question is this. I know that Einstein did study Judaism and he had a lot of different interests. He also played the violin. But it has been argued whether he really was atheist or not. He may have had some influence of Pantheism. What's your take on that?

Mr. ISAACSON: That's a great question and I spend a lot of time on it, because there's a lot of diaries and letters that he write, especially around 1929, when he turns 50, including a great essay on science and religion and a credo of "What I Believe." And he's been sort of grabbed at by both sides of the religious debate, whether it's the first chapter of Richard Dawkins' book, saying Einstein did not believe in God or many Christians and other religious books talking about Einstein's faith.

So I have a chapter called Einstein's God and he was - in my mind, and I just quote him because I've really gone to all of his writings - as somebody who did have a deep faith, a faith that was somewhat deistic. He said there's a spirit manifest in the laws of the universe. In the face of which, we must be humbled and awed. And that, to me, is my sense of a God and a cosmic religion. He did not believe in personal god. He would break the laws of science for us if we prayed to have a snow day tomorrow because we didn't do our homework or something. He, at one point, said miracles for some people are evidence of God's existence. But for me, it's the absence of miracles that are evidence of God's existence.

And at one point, a cardinal in Boston said, well, it's still smacks of atheism because there's not a personal god. So a rabbi in New York sent him a telegram saying, Einstein, do you or do you not believe in God? Answer 50 words or less. And so Einstein didn't even use up the 50 words. He said I believe in Spinoza's god, a god who is manifest in the spirit of everything that exists in the harmonies of the universe.

FLATOW: Thanks for calling. 1-800-989-8255. Barbie(ph) in Louisville. Did I get that right? Bob Edwards spent many years trying to teach me how to say that word.

BARBIE (Caller): That's right. Louisville. That's correct. Thank you. Thank you for taking my call. I have a less serious question. I would like to know, in portrayal in movies - and I think just the pictures you see of Einstein - he seems to very quirky, humorous person. But I would like to know if during the research - if you got an - did he have a sense of humor? And what type of sense of humor, or what type of humor did he enjoy? And I'll take my answers off the air. Thank you.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. ISAACSON: He definitely had a sense of humor, and it was a wry sense of humor. He loves, sort of, little comments and stuff. He wasn't somebody who told long jokes. But when somebody - at one point for - and sometimes, it was scientific. He had a famous saying when somebody rushed in once and told him they had disproved the theory of relativity and that the speed of light was not constant. He said, subtle is the Lord, but malicious he is not, which is his way of saying the experiment must be wrong or whatever.

But later in life, they had carved that on a mantle piece at Princeton. He was standing in front of it in the cocktail party later in life, and he was with a friend lamenting the fact that quantum mechanics was so inconceivable to him and things. And so he looked at the phrase and he said, well, maybe he is a bit malicious. And so Einstein would joke about the science in a self-deprecating way. And he had a genial personality. He was always the life of any dinner party.

FLATOW: Yeah. 1-800-989-8255 is our number.

Let's go back to the phones to Connie(ph) in Sacramento. Hi, Connie.

CONNIE (Caller): Hello. I have been fascinated since I heard that his first wife was a physicist, and that he really wasn't doing much in the way of his great thinking after their divorce. It seems to me she must have at least been a marvelous sounding board for him.

Mr. ISAACSON: Absolutely, and a really good question and another one that I explored quite a bit in the book. Mileva Maric was a physics student in Serbia, trying to make it in the all-male world of physics back then. Father gets her into the Zagreb Academy, which took only boys. And she becomes the only woman physics student in Einstein's class. At the Zurich Polytech, they fall madly in love. They have this illegitimate daughter I mentioned earlier.

And during the miracle year of 1905, she's a good sounding board, and she helps prepare the math and sort of check the papers - the miracle year - papers on relativity and quantum theory. Some, especially more feminist scholars, pushed a bit, I think, too far to say she was a full-fledged collaborator. Now that we have the new papers, we can sort of see day by day how he developed those theories. And I think that she deserves a lot of credit, especially for putting up with him in 1905, but not as a full-fledged collaborator.

They go through a very bitter divorce. And at one point he says to her, one of these - he doesn't - he wants to get a divorce, but he don't have any money. And so he says, one of these days, one of those papers will win the Nobel Prize. And he said if you give me a divorce, I'll give you the prize money. Now she's a good scientist. She takes a week to think about it. She consults with Fritz Haber and other scientists.

And finally, she takes the bet. And it's not until 1922 that they announced his Nobel Prize, but she gets all the money and buys three apartment buildings in Zurich.

I also want to correct that it's not quite true that after their marriage fell apart, he did no good science. Their marriage falls apart in 1912, 1913 and stuff. The greatest and most elegant theory, in my mind, in all of physics is the general theory of relativity, which he concludes after the very messy divorce in November of 1915.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Thanks for calling. 1-800-898-8255. So many people want to talk, so little time.

I've got Arthur(ph) of Norwalk, Connecticut. Hi, Arthur.

ARTHUR (Caller): Hi. How are you today?

FLATOW: Hi there.

ARTHUR: I actually - I assisted a photographer who had photographed Einstein two times, one time early in Europe. And I don't remember what year it was. It may have been in the '30s. But another time, he went to Princeton and he photographed - and it was funny because they had recently invented these strobe lights. And he - this photographer, Lucian Agner(ph), had a couple of them adapted to flash with a recently invented - well, the like of 35-millimeter camera that he was using that was from the '30s.

And so now - I think that the year of this was in 1954 when he was photographing him in Princeton. So there he was in Princeton and he was tagging along with Einstein, and he was at Princeton with him. And he had these lights set up on these, you know, big stands. And Einstein - he was talking to Einstein and all of a sudden, Einstein struck this pose where he was like staring out into space like you were talking about a little while ago how he would visualize things.

It looked like he was in a trance. So Agner said this is the time. He didn't have time to set the cameras the right, you know, aperture or really refocus. He just kind of snapped it in this, you know, all these flashes and units and everything, all like, you know, exploded - made all those light. And he got this beautiful image of Einstein standing there. And a little while later, Einstein turns to him. He says, you know, Vell(ph), you can take a picture anytime you want. You know, like, he was so impervious.

Mr. ISAACSON: There are a lot of Princeton stories, some of which - I think Einstein probably inspired more stories of people who ran into him in Princeton. But thanks for telling me that one.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Obviously, I have time for one more story because there are a lot of story.

Let's go Bill(ph) in Goldendale, Washington. Is that right, Bill?

BILL (Caller): Yes. Actually, it's Dr. Bill Kelley. And I'd like to tell you that Einstein babysat me when I was a child at Los Alamos. And the reason he did was my father was responsible for his security. And it's interesting that…

Mr. ISAACSON: I hate to say this, but Einstein did not have a security clearance and was never at Los Alamos.

BILL: Well, he babysat me on two occasions, Walter.


Dr. KELLEY: And on another occasion, he and my mother took a train trip from Lamie(ph) where most of us are like to go to Los Alamos, and from Lamie, down to Albuquerque. And the reason he babysat me was that Dr. Einstein had to sit in my father's office for a reason. And my mother noticed him and he said, who is that person? And my father with his biting intelligence said, well, that's Dr. Einstein. And she said, well, do you think he'll babysit Billy? And my father said, why don't you ask him? And she did. And he did.

Mr. ISAACSON: Well, Ira, I do thank you that hear a lot of these tales. We have to take some with a grain of salt. I'd know you probably remember that. But not, you know, things are not always as they were remembered.

FLATOW: You think people have creative memories after the fact?

Mr. ISAACSON: Oh, I - look, my memory is bad like 10 minutes later. But to tell you, when you're writing a biography, you get a lot of tales and stuff. And so you have to document where was he every day. Did he ever go to a certain place? So, you know, that's why writing biography is interesting. You get oral histories. You get remembrances of people. And then you go to the documents and his calendar, and where he was each day. And you try to sort out what is right.

And, you know, there are a lot of tales about Einstein that are very interesting - some apocryphal, some true. And, you know, that's a job of biographer is to sort through them.

FLATOW: Let's - we have time for one more tale. Tell us the tale about his death and his cremation. And what happened to his brain?

Mr. ISAACSON: Well, you know, he never wanted to be an icon, so he decided to be cremated. But when they did the autopsy in Princeton Hospital, the doctor-on-call there decided to keep the brain, put it in a Tupperware container. Family didn't even really approve of it - no. And the next day at school, in a fifth grade class at Princeton, a kid - they - a teacher says what's the news of the day? And the one go raise his hands said, oh, Einstein died. And then, the kid in the back who'd never used to speak, raised his hands and said, and my dad has his brain, because the kid's dad was the guy who'd perform the autopsy.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. ISAACSON: And so, it became a big - the brain ended up being driven around the country by this pathologist and shown around. It's now back at Princeton Hospital. But let me say, I don't think it was the folds of his brain, or the neurons, the gluons that made him particularly creative. I think it was his mind - his creative intense curiosity, his rebelliousness, and the fact that he was such an imaginative individual.

FLATOW: Well, how would you think he would be, you know, I'm sure you've been asked this before and we think about things like this a lot - how would he have been received today if he were still alive? Would he still be an icon?

Mr. ISAACSON: Absolutely. I mean, first of all, his scientific theories were great leaps of the imagination. They weren't things where you just kind of improve slightly on Newton's theory of gravity, for example, is when you say no, Newton's theory of gravity has it all wrong. Gravity is actually the curving of space and time, a whole new way of looking at the universe.

Secondly, he - it was not only the wild halo of hair and piercing eyes, but he had a wonderful manner to him - that humor. And so, he loved being a celebrity in a way. He could talk in fifty statements and be very easily understood. So, I just think now he would be just the same type of icon he was back then. And we do need to make heroes and icons again out of people who have great imagination and great creativity.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255. Let's see if we can go to the phones. Hi, let's go to a Jason(ph) in East Lansing.

JASON (Caller): Hello. Yes, I just caught rerouting(ph), Mr. Isaacson, his book of his most important essays, and it's called "Out of My Later Years." And in it…

Mr. ISAACSON: Right.

JASON: Are you familiar with that?

Mr. ISAACSON: Oh, of course, yeah. I quote it quite bit in the Einstein's guide chapter. Yeah.

JASON: Yes, sir. And one of the things that I think could help African-Americans and Jewish Americans today, he was a - when he came to the United States, he was appalled at segregation, he was great friends with Paul Robeson, as I understand it. And one of his last speaking engagements was at Lincoln University, which was then kind of like the Howard for black people.

Mr. ISAACSON: Yeah, it was a historically black university.

JASON: That's right.

Mr. ISAACSON: And you know the…

JASON: It - I just wanted to get this off, Professor Isaacson. He - what got me was the story about Marian Anderson. As you know, the Daughters of the American Revolution wouldn't let her sing, so Eleanor Roosevelt arranged for her to sing. And the segregated hotels in Washington - she couldn't stay anywhere, but guess who put her up for a week in his house?

Mr. ISAACSON: Yeah, no. I have that in the book because when she goes to Princeton, the Nassau Inn won't let her stay there, so Einstein, who didn't drive, walked over to the Nassau Inn and invited Marian Anderson to stay at his house in Princeton. And indeed she stayed there, as did Paul Robeson whenever they visited. Because as somebody who had felt discrimination growing up as a Jew in Germany, he was very sensitive to the discrimination felt by blacks.

And when he spoke at Lincoln University, as you said - there was a great president of that university, Dr. Horace Bond. And Einstein agreed to help teach the kids there - so many things - including the very young kids, including Dr. Horace Bond's son. And his son ended up being Julian Bond, now the chairman of the NAACP.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255. Anything in the letters, the recent letter? You said they were personal letters, but anything unto his last 30-year quest for the theory of everything in there that…

Mr. ISAACSON: Not in the most recent letters, but to me that's an inspiring quest because he had made his name in science. He felt uncomfortable with the uncertainties and the chance that's inherent in quantum mechanics, and so what we wanted to do was to get a theory of everything or a unified field theory. He just believed that field theory would help tie things together. And his goal as scientist was to unify things, instead of to have things randomly happening or stuff like that.

And even on his deathbed, he's doing the things that he loves the most. He's had an aneurysm. It's (unintelligible). In Princeton hospital, he decides not to have an operation. He knows he's going to die. He's still writing some of his essays about the need to improve race relations. He writes the first sentence of a speech he wants to give for Israel Independence Day, calling on them to be a leader in world peace and to make peace with the Palestinians, but also help the quest for peace in the nuclear age. And has - writes the first sentence and he says, I speak to you today not as a Jew and not only as an American but as a human being. And then the pain becomes too great and he puts it aside, never finishes a speech.

But right before he dies, he revives a little bit, reaches over to his table and he does what you're talking about. He takes out one last page and writes a equation after equation, just knowing he's dying, but he wants more equations that will get us a little closer to that unified field theory. And you can see the equations dribble off as the pain becomes too great, and he's about to go to sleep for the last time; crossing out a few mathematical mistakes, but still writing the equations that he hope would get him and the rest of us, perhaps, one step closer to that spirit manifest in the laws of the universe.

FLATOW: Talking to Walter Isaacson, author or "Einstein: His Life and Universe" on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

He did not go quietly into the night. He obviously still had work to do that he thought he was trying to finish up.

Mr. ISAACSON: You know, Ira, he was still doing that work. People say, you know, was it a waste that quest for a unified theory? And I say look, the string theorists were still doing exactly what Einstein did using added dimensions, mathematical formulism to create field theories with extra dimensions, to see if that might tie things together; people doing quantum gravity. It's still something that a hundred years from now I'm not sure will ever have a unified field theory, but I bet you if we don't, people will still be working on it.

FLATOW: Have - and speaking of working on things, have you got another book up you sleeve as we speak?

Mr. ISAACSON: Give me - Tell me, tell me, what should I do? I can't figure it out now.

FLATOW: How about…

Mr. ISAACSON: I'll tell you what I just did.


Mr. ISAACSON: There's a book by Einstein that he wrote in late 1930s when he had just fled to America. He needed some money, he had friend who needed some money so he writes a book called "The Evolution of Physics." It's a beautiful laymen's text. It's just sort of a history of physics written for the ordinary person. Starts with Galileo and mechanics, goes all the way through Newton and the relativity, and then to quantum mechanics. And it's infused with Einstein's feelings for field theories and why they're going to tie things together. And that book has been, you know, not easily available or in print, but Simon & Schuster and Touchdown, I asked them and they were put to get to that in paperback until that comes out this week, and I wrote a little introduction for it.

FLATOW: All right, Walter, good luck to you and thank you on your book, "Einstein and His Universe." We'll be right back after a short break.

Mr. ISAACSON: Thank you, Ira. Great to be with you.

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow, and this is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

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