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Thursday, August 16, 2007

Book Review: Einstein Book Relatively Good Reading

"Must have been rough working with that Tim Robbins fella Al..."

Walter Isaacson was a managing editor of Time Magazine as well as CEO of CNN, and as a writer and historian he's a pretty good managing editor. This is not to say that his book, Einstein: His Life and Universe (Simon & Schuster) isn't worth a read. Issacson has picked an inherently interesting subject and Einstein's life has enough of interest to hold a reader's attention. Isaacson also has a throughline: that Einstein went from radical young turk to stubborn defender of the old order in physics over the course of his career and that this shift was consistent with his anti-authoritarianism.
This is all good stuff and the anecdotes (Einstein was actually a pretty good student despite the old saw about him failing math, he loved to sail alone but could not swim) are plentiful but Isaccson isn't a talented enough writer to really make this material sing the way a Robert Caro or a Doris Kearns Goodwin could have. Passages such as "Okay, it's not easy, but
that's why we're no Einstein and he was..." hardly stir the soul.
Granted Isaacson has the added challenge of presenting abstract scientific and mathematical theories and putting them into context, which he manages rather well. I'm no great shakes when it comes to this stuff yet I felt I understood just what was so radical about Einstein's early theories and his theory of relativity and also what the great man found off-putting about the quantum physics he had helped to usher in. This is Issacson's greatest triumph with the text and it is a considerable one given the complexity of the ideas.
Where Isaacson has a harder time is getting to the root of Einstein as a man. He at times could be a terrible father (his brutal response to his older son's marriage is inexcusable especially in light of its similarity to his own first marriage) but His Life and Universe tries to suggest he was a bad husband as well but that's not so clear. Isaacson also gamely tackles Einstein's political awakenings, much of which is quite interesting.
Most of all Einstein: His Life and Universe is well arranged, dutifully covering Einstein's role in inaugurating the atomic age, his involvement in the McCarthy red scare etc. It does often feel more like a clothed outline rather than a stirring piece of historical writing but for the illumination of the science and for the gathering of all of this disparate material it is worth a read.
Three out of Five atoms:

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