Skip to main content

Einstein: His Life and Universe – Walter Isaacson *****

While it seems a statement of the obvious, this book is about Albert Einstein. It is not really about his famous equation E=mc2 although that is part of it. Neither is the book about Special or General Relativity, which is also part of it. This book is about the man, his youth, his family, his friendships and his relationships and not the least about his scientific genius and his discoveries. From his earliest childhood, to his miracle year of 1905 to his Nobel Prize to his political activism, Walter Isaacson discusses these diverse topics is an erudite yet thoroughly readable and entertaining book.
There are a few parts of the book that really stand out. Isaacson strives to explain those things that are most perplexing about Einstein. These include his statements about God and his stubbornness in refusing to accept quantum mechanics. He had been a steadfast believer that equations without physical meaning were not worthwhile yet in his later years; his struggle to develop a unified theory brought him away from physical meaning and more towards pure mathematics. Perhaps the most enjoyable parts of the book were those that discussed his relationships with his contemporaries such as Max Born and Niels Bohr.
Isaacson does a masterful job of being objective. Where Einstein’s brilliance in science shone through Isaacson described it yet where Einstein was incredibly naïve about politics, Isaacson described this too. And lest we think that the author idolized Einstein, his section on his failed relationships with women shows that the author saw Einstein as a mere mortal. Isaacson also has done the best job of any book I have read so far that explains the notion of curved space-time. He even takes a detour into non-Euclidean geometry, explaining how a triangle can have more than 180 degrees. No matter how much you suffered through high school or college physics, this book will open your eyes onto the brilliance that was Einstein. And for those of you who could deal with the physics here is another side of the man that you did not learn about in school
Some people might say that too much of his personal life is in the book but for these people I would say that there are a lot of books about Einstein’s science that might better serve them. One of these might be Kip Thorne’s Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy. I didn’t get a lot out of that book as the physics was too complicated so I recommend that one read Einstein’s biography first.
Paperback:  
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Stephen Goldberg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I, Mammal - Liam Drew *****

It's rare that a straightforward biology book (with a fair amount of palaeontology thrown in) really grabs my attention, but this one did. Liam Drew really piles in the surprising facts (often surprising to him too) and draws us a wonderful picture of the various aspects of mammals that make them different from other animals. 

More on this in a moment, but I ought to mention the introduction, as you have to get past it to get to the rest, and it might put you off. I'm not sure why many books have an introduction - they often just get in the way of the writing, and this one seemed to go on for ever. So bear with it before you get to the good stuff, starting with the strange puzzle of why some mammals have external testes.

It seems bizarre to have such an important thing for passing on the genes so precariously posed - and it's not that they have to be, as it's not the case with all mammals. Drew mixes his own attempts to think through this intriguing issue with the histor…

Foolproof - Brian Hayes *****

The last time I enjoyed a popular maths book as much as this one was reading Martin Gardner’s Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions as a teenager. The trouble with a lot of ‘fun’ maths books is that they cover material that mathematicians consider fascinating, such as pairs of primes that are only two apart, which fail to raise much excitement in normal human beings. 

Here, all the articles have something a little more to them. So, even though Brian Hayes may be dealing with something fairly abstruse-sounding like the ratio of the volume of an n-dimensional hypersphere to the smallest hypercube that contains it, the article always has an interesting edge - in this case that although the ‘volume’ of the hypersphere grows up to the fifth dimension it gets smaller and smaller thereafter, becoming an almost undetectable part of the hypercube.

If that doesn’t grab you, many articles in this collection aren’t as abstruse, covering everything from random walks to a strange betting game. What'…

A Galaxy of Her Own - Libby Jackson ****

This is an interesting book, even if it probably tries to be too many things to too many people. I wondered from the cover design whether it was a children's book, but the publisher's website (and the back of the book) resolutely refuse to categorise it as such. The back copy doesn't help by saying that it will 'inspire trailblazers and pioneers of all ages.' As I belong to the set 'all ages' I thought I'd give it a go.

Inside are featured the 'stories of fifty inspirational women who have been fundamental to the story of humans in space.' So, in some ways, A Galaxy of Her Own presents the other side of the coin to Angela Saini's excellent Inferior. But, inevitably, given the format, it can hardly provide the same level of discourse.

Despite that 'all ages' comment and the lack of children's book labelling we get a bit of a hint when we get to a bookplate page in the form of a Galaxy Pioneers security pass (with the rather worrying…