Friday, August 25, 2017

Einstein: His Life and His Universe: He Was Brilliant But He Had Relationship Issues

Book Review: Einstein: His Life and His Universe by Walter Isaacson
Version: eBook library borrow

I watched the series Genius, on National Geographic Channel I believe, that delved into the life of genius physicist Albert Einstein. I was so enthralled that I wanted to read the book on which the series was based, Einstein: His Life and His Universe. Now I wish I hadn't done either.

As a science nerd all my life, I held Albert Einstein as one of my heroes. He died in 1955, six years after I was born. We shared the same initials (A.E.). I wanted to be a physicist, because of him. Then I saw the series and read this book. It turns out, Einstein was kind of a cad.

As the series and the book details, he didn't mind misusing people to further his personal goals and complete his work. He relied on the adept mathematical skills of his first wife to proof his own, but he didn't give her credit for his discoveries, even though they discussed his ideas and she was key to the efficacy of his calculations. They married and had children, and he forced her to care for them instead of furthering her own science and mathematics career. Many of his discoveries picked up from the ideas and work of other physicists rather than being original. And he cheated on both wives, one of whom was a cousin. Now, creatively he was a great thinker and was able to extend the work of others because of his keen insights -- no doubt about it.  Einstein was a visual thinker and did several key thought experiments to concept physics in ways other scientists of his time couldn't. That really was his gift. But he had relationship problems.

As we learn in the made-for-TV series and in the book from which it was closely developed, Einstein misused the people around him, from his professors to his wives, to his children. He rarely saw his sons. He had mistresses while he was married. He even led on a fiancee who was the daughter of a family who took him in while he attended university when others forsook him, carrying on a long-distance relationship while he carried on with the woman who would become his first wife, whom he would then divorce for his second wife, a cousin.

The book is well researched and well written. I don't mean to detract from it or the well-produced television series. In the series, it is well acted and well written. But when I realize what a horrible person he was even into later life, well, sometimes your idols are better off left unexplored.

Einstein did do one other thing very well. He understood the power of the atom and the menace the German physicists presented in their search for the atom bomb, preparing the United States for the eventuality of the development such a weapon in their hands. And as the United States prepared for such a weapon themselves, Einstein joined other scientists in opposing it. In this, he became a voice of reason, finally using his celebrity and his prominence for good. So, perhaps, this story isn't entirely a disappointment.

Still, I have many mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, we should acknowledge knowledge gained. On the other, we should be grateful for the unsullied images of long past heroes whom we cherish. Nothing can be changed having finally understood Einstein's personal shortcomings. He was still brilliant in his science insights. In sum, I'm sorry I read this book.

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