Einstein — Walter Isaacson

“To dwell on the things that depress or anger us does not help in overcoming them. One must knock them down alone.”


It’s always a bit dumbfounding to take in the immensity and complexity of an accomplished human’s life. Each struggle, triumph, failure, and loss is rendered acutely visible, both in a way that sets it apart from all other moments and in a way that stitches it into the tapestry of the person’s life; each moment has a context dependent on those that came before it, a context from which we can never really sever ourselves. I’ve become a big fan of Walter Isaacson and his biographies. While the level of detail can be a bit overwhelming at times, it’s such a unique feeling to wade through the waters of another person’s life. It is a vivid reminder that behind every face we see (or fail to even notice) as we go about our lives, there a wellspring of experience, emotional complexity, history, tragedy, and joy.

Einstein’s life was no different in this regard. Perhaps what I find most interesting about many iconic figures is how troubled their family relations often seem to be. Tragedy strikes his first marriage with the death of their firstborn (most likely due to scarlet fever, although there is some speculation that she was adopted by another family). Although his marriage with Mileva Maric overcomes this trial, it was disheartening to see what started out as this profound love and intellectual partnership (to some extent) spiral into bitterness and resentment. Einstein also had continued difficulties with his first son Albert, as he was often away teaching in different countries over the years; when personal relationships proved too time-consuming or difficult for him, Einstein would dive back deeply into his work, forgetting all else. His other son Eduard struggled with schizophrenia and spent a chunk of his life in a psychiatric ward. This relationship, too, pained Einstein and left him feeling helpless at times.

But there is much more to learn from this book than just the fact that geniuses have difficulty connecting to people on an emotional level. For one thing, I had no idea that Einstein had immense difficulty getting a teaching job even after publishing a seminal paper on light quanta. Anti-Semitism seemed to be extremely pervasive in the early 20th century in Europe, and this stopped even someone of Einstein’s intellectual caliber from getting a job (it didn’t really help that he was generally regarded as lazy, impudent, and arrogant by a few references). It does make me laugh though — if even Einstein required tenacity and relentlessness to get the world to approve of him, what hope do the rest of us have? Eventually, after his papers on special relativity and general relativity, the world would be forced to recognize his greatness. But the journey to approval in academic circles and later celebrity-hood was fraught with rejection, failure, uncertainty, personal tragedy, and years of demanding intellectual work.

Beyond that, this book also had me thinking — what does it take to do something original and groundbreaking? Einstein showed a natural, relentless curiosity about the world around him. This curiosity forced him to constantly pose questions to himself, dissecting and reforming ideas over many years. But I suppose what he stressed most was free thinking — not being restrained by conventional wisdom or frameworks for understanding the world. If we want to do something different from what the world already has, then we have to turn over problems in ways that haven’t been done before. Or create connections between two ideas that have never been combined before. Einstein was certainly a rebel in this regard, and in his most productive years he disregarded what were supposed truths in order to come up with new solutions and paradigms for understanding the universe. The irony was not lost on him that he would later become regarded as an authoritarian figure defending old principles, unable to accept quantum mechanics as a new paradigm.

There are other bits and pieces of his life and habits that remind me of other great thinkers: the enjoyment of solitude and contemplative time; a general emotional detachment that helps direct more energy towards focused work; being against heavy ideology in any regard; belief in the individual and humanist principles; and a constant questioning of authority and convention. While there is a ton to learn from this book, I did find it a bit drier at times than the Ben Franklin and Steve Jobs biographies. Large portions about politics in Einstein’s later decades also seemed unnecessarily detailed at times. But overall, another great Isaacson book.

Score: 7/10


· Overarching themes

o Life and work reflected disruption of societal certainties and moral absolutes

o Emphasis on intellectual freedom and independent thought

o Prolific and relentless producer

o Constant quest for unifying theories, reconciling theories that could not be observed in nature, or reconciling two seemingly unrelated theories for the same phenomenon

o Religious feelings of awe and humility informed his sense of social justice — dedicated himself to efforts on behalf of the oppressed

o Individualism and freedom were necessary for creative art and science to flourish

· Personality

o Contempt for authority led him to question received wisdom

o Thought of himself as a “lone traveler” belonging to no one and nowhere, always in need of solitude

o Observant and was in awe of everyday phenomena

o Believed in thinking for its own sake

o Insisted on learning and pursuing solutions in his own way as opposed to following a regiment or rules given to him

o Disdain for bourgeois consumption and ostentatious wealth

o Against heavy ideology and subscribing to thoughts based on party

o Ability to tune out all distractions, sometimes to the detriment of his father

o Tenacity even in the face of rejection, contradiction, struggle

o Foundation of morality was rising above the merely personal to live in a way that benefited humanity

o Passionate curiosity

· The Academy’s Reading List

o Antigone — Sophocles

o Don Quixote — Cervantes

o A Treatise of Human Nature — Hume

o Analysis of the Sensations, Mechanics and Its Development — Mach

o Ethics — Spinoza

o Science and Hypothesis — Poincare


· “Blind respect for authority is the greatest enemy of the truth.”

· “A new idea comes suddenly and in a rather intuitive way. But intuition is nothing but the outcome of earlier intellectual experience.”

· His conviction that the universe loves simplification and beauty, and his willingness to be guided by this conviction, even if it meant destroying the foundations of Newtonian physics, led him, with a clarity of thought that others could not match, to his new description of space and time.

· “To dwell on the things that depress or anger us does not help in overcoming them. One must knock them down alone.”

· The decline of the marriage was a downward spiral. He had become emotionally withdrawn, Maric had become more depressed and dark, and each action reinforced the other. Einstein tended to avoid painful personal emotions by immersing himself in his work. Maric, for her part, was bitter about the collapse of her own dreams and increasingly resentful of her husband’s success. Her jealousy made her hostile toward anyone else who was close to Einstein, including his mother and his friends. Her mistrustful nature was, understandable, to some extent an effect of Einstein’s detachment, but it was also a cause.

· He could cling to a set of ideas, even in the face of “apparent contradiction” (as he put it in his 1905 relativity paper). He also had a deep faith in his intuitive feel for the physical world. Working in a more solitary manner than most other scientists, he held true to his own instincts, despite the qualms of others.

· “Space and time become players in the evolving cosmos. They come alive. Matter here causes space to warp there, which causes matter over here to move, which causes space way over there to warp even more, and so on. General relativity provides the choreography for an entwined cosmic dance of space, time, matter, and energy.” — Brian Greene

· “One of the strongest motives that leads men to art and science is escape from everyday life with its painful crudity and hopeless dreariness. Such men make this cosmos and its construction the pivot of their emotional life, in order to find peace and security which they cannot find in the narrow whirlpool of personal existence.”

· Einstein’s successes had come in part from his rebelliousness. There was a link between his creativity and his willingness to defy authority. He had no sentimental attachment to the old order, thus was energized by upending it. His stubbornness had worked to his advantage.

· “To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I am a devoutly religious man.”

· For the remaining ten years of his life, his passion for advocating a unified governing structure for the globe would rival that for finding a unified field theory that could govern all the forces of nature. Although distinct in ways, both quests reflected his instincts for transcendent order. In addition, both would display Einstein’s willingness to be a nonconformist, to be serenely secure in challenging prevailing attitudes.

· “Brief is this existence, as a fleeting visit in a strange house. The path to be pursued is poorly lit by a flickering consciousness.”