Academic journal article The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies

Einstein: His Life and Universe

Academic journal article The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies

Einstein: His Life and Universe

Article excerpt

Einstein: His Life and Universe Walter Isaacson Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2007 (Basis for Genius, the ten-part National Geographic series, 2017, Starring Geoffrey Rush)

When Walter Isaacson wrote this book and National Geographic did the ten-part series based on it that began its run in April 2017, they were wise not to attempt an exhaustive study of contemporary physics. To do that would have lost readers in material far beyond most people's grasp (including this reviewer's). Einstein: His Life and Universe serves its readers well by settling for something far different than a textbook. What it does do is to provide a lucid window into the advanced theories of the past century, while necessarily leaving readers with as many questions as it answers. As to the physics, it is a highly intelligent introduction to such things as the law of the photoelectric effect (for which, oddly enough, Einstein won his only Nobel Prize), the Special and General Theories of Relativity, the curvature of "spacetime," the mysteries of Quantum Theory, and much else. For the educated lay man who is not himself a physicist, this book deserves a place alongside Brian Greene's fascinating The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality.

What interests us most, however, in the context of this journal on social, political and economic studies, is what we are told about twentieth century intellectual culture by Albert Einstein's manner of life and thinking on social issues, together with Isaacson's own ideological frame of reference as his biographer. Although always distinctive by virtue of his own inimitable persona, Einstein's outlook on life, people and society was rather representative of the generations of intellectuals who during his lifetime wrote for the New Republic and The Nation in the United States. Isaacson, too, falls into that genre, either accepting or providing a gloss for the sentiments voiced by Einstein. In what follows, we will discuss what the book indicates about the thinking of both men.

Isaacson stresses that a key to Einstein's remarkable departures from the physics that had come down from Newton was his "imaginative nonconformity." That willingness to go contrary to received opinion opened the door for him to think afresh as, in the early twentieth century, he introduced his amazing new discoveries; and it was equally evident later in his life as he swam against the current by his long and lonely quest for a "unified field theory" which, he hoped unsuccessfully, would resolve the seeming absurdities of the Quantum Theory that had become the new consensus. Along the way, he was much honored and even became a world celebrity; but in his science he both collaborated with the other brilliant minds and struck out on his own. When Isaacson speaks of Einstein's "imaginative" aspect, what he is referring to is a mind engrossed in "thought experiments" and flights of intuition, with testable hypotheses following in their wake.

Einstein's way of life and social thought, however, could hardly be considered nonconformist if considered within the intellectual milieu of which he was a part. For want of a better description, it is apt to use what seems like an oxymoron: "the moderately far left." It was a milieu characteristic of the intelligentsia of Europe and the United States: anti- bourgeois, mostly flirtatious with but episodically repelled by what it saw as the great Soviet experiment, in any event stoutly anti-anti-Communist, pacifist and anti-nationalist, and mainly secular as to religion - but all with a generous admixture of inconsistency, led by the need to adapt ideology to changing left-oriented imperatives as they arose. One could hardly say Einstein was a nonconformist in that context. His nonconformity was, rather, that of his entire group in contrast to the mainstream of society.

Although Isaacson says Einstein spent most of his childhood in "a respectable bourgeois existence," he somehow came to harbor a persistent dislike for "philistines. …

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