Bookmarks Issue: 

His Life and Universe

A-EinsteinAs a young man, Albert Einstein (1879–1955) declared, "Long live impudence. It’s my guardian angel in the world." Einstein’s rebellious nature and disregard for convention characterized his life and career. He was so insolent in the classroom that, despite his obvious gifts, his professors refused to help him find employment. As a humble patent clerk in 1905, Einstein published four papers that rocked the scientific establishment and revolutionized the field of physics. Ten years later, he developed the General Theory of Relativity, earning a Nobel Prize despite the opposition of anti-Semitic colleagues. Through two marriages, two world wars, and a meteoric rise to fame, Einstein became one of the greatest minds of the 20th century.
Simon & Schuster. 675 pages. $32. ISBN: 0743264738

Miami Herald 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Like its subject, Walter Isaacson’s ambitious biography of Albert Einstein radiates intelligence, wit and eloquence. … Isaacson uses simple examples to convey esoteric principles and manages not to alienate readers who may have avoided science classes." Kathleen Krog

Baltimore Sun 4 of 5 Stars
"The book, thoroughly researched and well written, does an excellent job of summarizing the concepts behind Einstein’s theories. … Beyond the groundbreaking physics, Isaacson does a good job of putting what Einstein himself described as ‘an eventful life’ into an historical context." Dennis O’Brien

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"Whatever your background in science, Einstein: His Life and Universe is a joy and a revelation to read—rich in detail, insightful, superbly researched and written. … Isaacson’s success here is to render Einstein’s largely abstract theories of time, space and gravitation into clear, intelligible English." David Walton

Houston Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Isaacson has labored mightily to make the science embedded in the life accessible even to those unschooled in physics. … Isaacson, the former managing editor of Time magazine, is a fluid writer whose narrative talents give Einstein an aura missing from many previous accounts of his life." Steve Weinberg

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"If his highly readable and informative book has an Achilles’ heel, it’s in the area of science. … Over all this is a warm, insightful, affectionate portrait with a human and immensely charming Einstein at its core." Janet Maslin

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Overall, this is an excellent book and has much to recommend it. … The technical sections on the special and the general theories of relativity would have gained much from the use of figures to illustrate the concepts." Amir D. Aczel

Critical Summary

Walter Isaacson (Benjamin Franklin 4 of 5 Stars Selection Sept/Oct 2003) is the first biographer to gain access to Einstein’s private archives, unsealed in 2006, and critics were delighted with the results. In this highly readable, articulate book, Isaacson brings the eminent scientist to life, dismissing myths (for example, that Einstein failed math) as well as recreating the world he inhabited and transformed. Aided by 21st-century scientists like Brian Greene, Isaacson explains Einstein’s theories in laymen’s terms, with varying results: most critics found the explanations easy to follow; a few did not. A thorough grasp of physics, however, isn’t necessary to appreciate Isaacson’s feat: he writes with affection and deep admiration for his subject, but he doesn’t ignore his failings.

Supplemental Reading

Uncertainty Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, and the Struggle for the Soul of Science | David Lindley (2007): There are a number of books out there that struggle to make relativity and quantum mechanics accessible to the nonscientist (we’ve offered recommendations in previous issues). We have not mentioned this one yet, which offers a lively mix of biography and science. As the Providence Journal said in its review, "Readers will find less scary science in Uncertainty than in most other studies of physics for the general reader, and more good old-fashioned narrative and quirky characters."