Fame, Philosophy, and Physics

Science  03 Aug 2007:
Vol. 317, Issue 5838, pp. 752-753
DOI: 10.1126/science.1145110

Einstein A Biography by Jürgen Neffe Translated from the German (1) by Shelley Frisch. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2007. 487 pp. $30, C$37.95. ISBN 9780374146641. Polity, London. £25. ISBN 9780745642208.

Einstein His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson Simon and Schuster, New York, 2007. 718 pp., illus. $32, C$38.99. ISBN 9780743264730. £25. ISBN 9781847370488.

In 1921 when the earliest Einstein biography, by the Berlin publicist Alexander Moszkowski (2), was about to appear, Einstein tried to halt its publication, because seeking the limelight was frowned upon in the German academic milieu of his day. His name had been widely publicized following the 1919 British eclipse expedition that had confirmed central predictions of the theory of relativity. In its aftermath, a group of rightist physicists and agitators had started to publicly protest the clamor about relativity and its Jewish, liberal, and pacifist creator.

Despite Einstein's initial resistance, his fame has far from diminished. This year, a great many biographies later, two new books try to capture again his science, politics, and private life: Walter Isaacson's Einstein: His Life and Universe and Jürgen Neffe's Einstein: A Biography. Isaacson and Neffe, both successful journalists, shared a privilege that their predecessors lacked: access to Einstein's most private correspondence that had remained closed in the Einstein Archives at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem until the summer of 2006. New perspectives on Einstein's personal life might therefore be expected from their books.

Indeed, Neffe discusses at length Einstein's divorce from his first wife, Mileva Mari, and the troubled relationship with his two sons. Einstein could at times be harsh and selfish toward his family, as when he presented Mari (who desperately wanted to remain married) with chilling terms under which he might agree to endure living together with her; she would practically have been reduced to his maid. Although bad endings to bad marriages happen to good people, others too have observed a lack of empathy on Einstein's part [e.g., Thomas Levenson (3)]. Neffe, however, seems to be short of sympathy for his subject and consistently portrays Einstein in the darkest light imaginable. He even mentions an unnamed diary that is supposed to state that Einstein was beating Mileva. Neffe does not shy away from sensationalism or simplistic explanations: He offers as a matter of course the presumption that Einstein's talent had to be accompanied by some form of autism. And when Einstein's second wife (and cousin), Elsa, passed away after close to 20 years of marriage, Neffe claims that her “ensnared husband” exhibited barely any emotion and simply started to work harder. Isaacson's account is better informed: Einstein wept when Elsa died. He did delve into his work, but “ashen with grief,” as his collaborator Banesh Hoffmann recalled.

Neffe interviewed a number of leading (mostly German) researchers whose work reflects themes of Einstein's physics. This effort nicely connects Einstein's science to today's laboratories. Yet the explanations Neffe offers vary from muddled to simply incorrect: His account of relativity has an observer who “moves away from his frame of reference,” and according to him Max Planck held that “light is a mass divisible in any number of ways.” Nor is Neffe's book the source to turn to for accounts of Einstein's fundamental discussions about quantum mechanics with Niels Bohr.

Isaacson presents Einstein's ideas with greater clarity. In fact, it is a pleasure to read his discussions of Einstein's philosophy and the philosophers of science that influenced Einstein: David Hume, Ernst Mach, and Immanuel Kant. Most physicists will know that the ideas of the empiricist Mach were instrumental to Einstein's formulation of his relativity theory, which did away with the unobserved ether. According to Einstein, who studied Hume's work in his early twenties with a group of friends, Hume “saw clearly that certain concepts … cannot be deduced from our perceptions of experience by logical methods.” Einstein had read Kant when he was just a schoolboy, and Kant had found that there was nonetheless a category of propositions the truth of which was “grounded in reason itself.” Einstein contended that relativity theory had proven Mach and Hume right and Kant wrong: One of the latter's a priori truths had been that space had to be three dimensional and adhere to the ancient geometric axioms of Euclid. This clearly conflicted with the dynamic and curved spacetime perspective of Einstein's theory.

Eventually, the biggest influence on Einstein's philosophy was undoubtedly his own discovery of the relativistic theory of gravity. Recent historical research has shown that this was the result of an intricate interplay between mathematical and physical considerations (4). In Einstein's later recollections, he held that eventually mathematics had given him the final theory. He derived a methodological maxim from this experience—” nature is the realization of the simplest conceivable mathematical ideas (5)”—that was to stay with him in his decades-long search for theories that should unify all of nature's forces (6).


Isaacson's book is to be recommended, not only because it presents us with a philosophically coherent picture of Einstein (Isaacson was educated as a philosopher at Oxford) but foremost for the balanced and humane account of its protagonist's life and work. Nevertheless, one exception needs to be noted: after an extensive discussion of Einstein's strong opposition to McCarthyism, Isaacson finds that “Einstein was not used to selfrighting political systems.” When McCarthy's influence waned, and Einstein saw parallels with the rise of Nazism fall away, he “finally discovered what was fundamental about America: it can be swept by waves of what may seem, to outsiders, to be dangerous political passions but are, instead, passing sentiments that are absorbed by its democracy and righted by its constitutional gyroscope.”

Following the Nazi takeover in Germany, Einstein relocated to the United States in 1933 and became an American citizen in 1940. Few Americans have had their opinions as closely followed by the press, or as warmly sought by their compatriots, as Einstein. Yet to Isaacson, Einstein apparently remained an “outsider,” America's own version of Voltaire's ingénu. This is an awkward qualification in light of Isaacson's own discussions of Einstein's public role, both in Europe and the United States. But it resonates with that of many Einstein contemporaries, who found Einstein's opinions naïve. Such judgment was usually passed by those who disagreed with him. It might be the case that Isaacson—who in his introductory chapter stresses the need for creativity in education so that his country could “in the face of global competition” reach a “competitive advantage” (not very Einsteinian words)—recoiled from Einstein's harsh judgment of the Red Scare.

Nevertheless, Isaacson's book is a welcome addition to the literature on Einstein, because it is an accessible overview that any student of the subject will appreciate. Unlike what Einstein's reaction to Moszkowski may suggest, Isaacson believes that Einstein loved publicity as much as he loved to complain about it. He points out, persuasively, that those who truly dislike the attention of journalists (Einstein's “natural enemies” according to Neffe) do not turn up with Charlie Chaplin at a movie premiere, as the Einsteins eventually did. Both then and now, one can be surprised by the scale of Einstein's celebrity. Yet, as he himself said, “it is a welcome symptom in an age, which is commonly denounced as materialistic, that it makes heroes of men whose ambitions lie wholly in the intellectual and moral sphere” (7).


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