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Posted by on Jul 4, 2015 in  Other, Inspiration, Opinion, Society, TG Roundup

“Einstein: His Life and Universe” by Walter Isaacson


I started reading this book few months back. I was a very slow reader as it is and only read few pages a day. However, because the book is so dense in its contents, at times, it took days or months to complete a chapter. In this biography Walter Isaacson not only dealt with Einstein’s personal life and some of its details, but also his mind and thought process behind not only his astounding scientific discoveries, but also the political views and the moral convictions he carried out throughout his life. It is the most personal account of a person by another person I have ever read!

The book dealt with a lot of details about Einstein’s early childhood and what perhaps could have seeded his brain with such seemingly implausible and truly astounding propositions about explaining certain physical phenomenon. The book also shows quite in depth into Einstein’s personal life: his first marriage Maric Milova and it’s failure, his relationship with his sons Hans and Eduard, his sister Maja, his second marriage to his cousin Elsa, and the fame which he had to deal with in his later life. Here I will mainly delve into how the author succeeded in bringing out Einstein’s mind behind his physics and world views and how they could be of the same thought process. In particular it is evident that this thought process might even offer a way out for some of humanities’ challenges that we face until this day.

First coming to his well known initial achievements like Special Relativity and Light Quanta theories. Special Relativity is an astounding discovery and intellectual feat of its times and even perhaps now, considering how it extended the electromagnetic field theory, conceived and explained by James Clark Maxwell by his famous equations, to explain the constancy of velocity of light no matter how fast the observer measuring it is moving. It is contrary to all common knowledge of Newtonian mechanics of that time, but it did explain the anomalies being observed at the end of late 1800s. One simple observation is that all the Newton’s laws explaining motion seem to be same for subjects in rest or subjects in motion, for example, traveling in a train. On a train moving at a constant velocity, a team can play basketball exactly as they could on the ground. This was kind of astonishing, as what is relative motion doing and why is it not affecting its subjects in terms of movement, inertia, etc?   

Newton’s laws explained it by declaring an absolute space and time that is present and anything and everything that happens is with respect to them. His first law states “Every object continues to be at the state of rest or constant velocity unless and otherwise acted upon by a force”. The velocity of objects can vary depending on from which frame of reference it is measured. But one thing that they failed to explain: why is the velocity of light constant no matter how fast the observer is to the source of it? This was being observed by experiments conducted by Michelson and Morley, but even before that Maxwell’s equations propound the velocity of electromagnetic waves, light being only a subset of them, is constant. Special Relativity explains it by giving a larger picture that by saying space and time are no more absolute, but they change based on the speed of the observer! This is a very radical proposition and only a non-conformist like Einstein can propose such an audacious theory. But for Einstein it’s anything but natural because he understood the very gist of Maxwell’s equations to the core very well. Maxwell’s equations explain that the theory of magnetism and electricity are one and the same, but they manifest in different forms based on by which means they are being observed. It is an astounding theory in its own terms, but when Einstein studied them he found that electromagnetic waves have a constant velocity and it cannot be changed (in a given medium) no matter what, otherwise the everyday facts of electricity and magnetism cannot be explained.

It is said that what made Einstein think and picture about how these things work was sparked by a small compass given to him by his uncle, but what is more profound is that his astounding ability to picture things far beyond our everyday experiences, possibly because his early childhood verbal skills were very poor, as per the author. Also, the often overlooked trait of Einstein was his perseverance at finding a solution to a problem until it fits the picture and not violate what is being observed. Because his verbal skills were limited early in his life, he didn’t limit himself to think solutions about complex problems. That is the greatness of this child and later who grew into an astounding human being.  In the book, Isaacson did a good job of correlating the events that led to Einstein’s discovery of Special Relativity, but I thought a little more emphasis on how he did correlate Maxwell’s equations to come up with a radical proposition would have been more appropriate. In all, Special Relativity broke several barriers and led to explain the constancy of light speed is pivotal in unleashing 20th century physics. The most unbelievable deduction of this theory is that, there is no such thing as “events happening simultaneously”, because for observers going in one plane of  motion to observe things happens at different times than ones that in motion in a separate plane. So there is no such thing as something happening simultaneously. A more thorough explanation of this can be found in several books  or in this very lucid video:

And when Special Relativity is extended to how we deal with mass of an object, it resulted in the ever famous equation E = mc2 which is perhaps the most pivotal equation of physics which altered the course of the human race or even its existence in a dramatic way. The political implications of this and how there was a race to build a deadly weapon based on this was history, but the equation is ethereal in a sense that it could not have been conceived by classical means of thinking at all! The fact that Einstein could foresee it shows how acute his vision was!

A lesser known discovery of theory of light quanta (E = h*ν)  is also by Einstein! But it is the one that explains photo-electricity and seeds the early quantum theory, although the later principles of quantum mechanics were severely opposed and refuted by Einstein, (I will get to that part later), but the light quanta theory explains how light can be converted to energy and how we should view light as packets rather than waves to account for how they produce energy. The wave theory of light explains how we have different colors of light and properties like diffraction, etc, but doesn’t explain how it’s related to energy. A wave needs a medium to propagate but light doesn’t need a medium, it can travel in vacuum,  and can transmit energy. So when photo-electricity was observed, Einstein’s equation about light quanta readily explained it. In fact, it is for this theory that Einstein got his Noble Prize! The politics that went into him not getting it because of his Relativity theories are well depicted in this book. Einstein came up with Special Relativity, light quanta theory as well as a very important proposition in the area of statistical mechanics subsequently called Bose-Einstein Statistics (Bose is Satyendra Nath Bose whose mathematics helped Einstein formalize his theory on this) way back in 1905. Initially, his radical ideas drew not much attention, but as experiment after experiment were proving his theories correct there was no way he could not bask in the glory of his astounding propositions. The book gives a very good account, in chronological order,  about how everything unfolded and by 1910s or so, it was inevitable he should win the Nobel Prize for Physics.

But as his theories were getting validated, his fame getting quadrupled, so are some of his detractors who happened to be influential individuals in the scientific establishment of the day. There are two reasons why these detractors tried to block Nobel Prize to Einstein. One reason was their pure disagreement of Relativity principle, but the others included that some of them were anti-semitic! Also, Einstein was against any military notions and patriotic fervor that were sweeping Europe at that time and in particular in Germany. So several of these scientists who are pro-war and even helped develop chemical weapons during World War I for Germany, did form a coterie opposing the coveted prize to Einstein. As the committees appointed were unable to come up with an endorsement of Einstein, there comes a state where the Nobel Committee itself starts feeling the pressure for evading it so many years for one reason or other. Finally, they appoint a scientist who did some pioneering work on ophthalmology who was given the responsibility to get proper citation of Einstein’s work! And that too he was credited with the work in the light quanta theory which was the basis for photoelectric effect and was well proven experimentally and without a doubt. But Special and General Relativity were also proven by the eclipse observation as well as by the planet Mercury’s perihelion shift calculations but they  still get dismissed as a philosophy rather than a solid physics theory! The irony is that he finally gets awarded for photoelectric effect, which was proven by experiments developed by Philip Lenard, who was the leading guy at that time trying to discredit Einstein’s ground breaking work on Relativity theories mainly because of his anti-semitic stance to undermine Einstein’s work. The author succinctly puts the bizarre way it was awarded in a very lucid way for all to see. It shows Einstein did not have Carte Blanche even in his own field as many a common folks might be assuming. He had to persevere in his convictions be it scientific or political just like any common man. And Einstein did this in a very humble but definitive way! One should acknowledge Isaacson’s astute observations and connecting the dots from available facts and in this book he does a remarkable job of drawing the true nature of Einstein.

By all means Special Relativity and light quanta theories were several eons ahead of their time, but Einstein’s work on General Theory of Relativity is mind blowing. But in a way the onus was on him to complete this theory for, unless it is done, his work on Special Theory of Relativity, which deals with constant velocity of light and the corresponding delineation of space and time, will not be complete, as we need several answers for acceleration of objects and why it looks same as gravity! Also Special Relativity proclaims there is a physical limit to speed that can be attained by anything in the physical world, and that is the speed of light. But how can we explain the forces of gravity which seem to exert force on its subjects instantaneously? Einstein once again needed to come up with the Equivalence Principle where he has to enunciate that acceleration and gravity are the manifestation of the same thing and it is because of way how space and time bend around accelerating objects! Two objects with mass get attracted to each other not because of some action at distance as Newton proposed (and was quite uncomfortable with that notion), but because the space around an object with mass curves, another object closer to it will have to fall through the curvature defined by it’s mass. this is very good video which explains a bit about this in this Brian Green’s scintillating video:

Around the time Einstein was propounding General Relativity, atomic level physics was having new theories which later on came to be known as ‘quantam mechanics‘. Several of these propositions including the ‘uncertainty principle’  by Werner Heisenberg which were vehemently opposed by Einstein because they deal with probabilities and the new philosophy that there is a physical limitation in ascertaining the position and momentum of a particle at the same time. Einstein argued there is no scope to rely in probabilistic approaches when trying to formulate laws governing physical entities. His famous words being “God does not play dice” implying nature should have been formed based on simple laws which are deterministic rather than unpredictable. However, without the theory of quantum mechanics there is no explanation of several things in particle physics and even in field theories. The structure of atom, band theory, theory of semiconductors and the present day electronics all owe their advancement based on quantum mechanics. But Einstein had a dogmatic view on this and embarked on this quest for a Unified Field Theory which can be used to explain all four fundamental forces of nature (Strong – forces interacting within the nucleus of an atom, Weak – forces behind radioactivity, Electromagnetic – most of the forces we see in nature including friction, heat etc and Gravity – the force that governs all celestial bodies).

The task was unbelievably stupendous, even for the kind of single minded genius like Einstein! He kept on working on trying to come up with this theory until the end of his life but did not succeed. His firm belief is that there is a principle that is not yet discovered can explain all nature, which when applied with various limitations can transform into theories that can support all these forces. The quest for this is still going on and later advancements of quarks, string theory, etc, are all as a result of this. Isaacson very well illustrates the events and interaction of Einstein with other scientists and basically shows Einstein was also human in terms of sticking to something very dogmatically even when experiments are proving otherwise! The author really highlights this human fallacy, even in Einstein, in a rather nonchalant way. That the same person who stood to revolutionize physics with his radical ideas against classical mechanics, now opposes another paradigm shift in the thinking of physical laws which revolutionized particle physics. It perhaps happens to lot of people who enunciated their principles to stand for what is right, but later to renege on them only to become more stubborn or even obtuse! 

The book also brings into light the other side of Einstein, his political and human outlook. His political views are quite liberal and were perceived as very socialist. In fact, the FBI in US suspected him of being communist, and he was the subject of a witch hunt unleashed by the then bureau chief J. Edgar Hoover for several years in the later part of his life. So much for the FBI bungling that we keep seeing on several occasions and they seem to have botched it even when dealing with world’s most renowned scientist! But before all this even from his early days and as a child Einstein was a pacifist and always denounced war. He favored an international force which is beyond all countries to control any unrest that may arise and he was against centralization of powers based on country, region, or religion. His ideas are pertinent even now, but he was no political heavy weight to wield any kind of influence in this sphere.

In the early 1900s, when it was imperative that every young man ought to conscript for military in Germany, Einstein actually changed his citizenship to Switzerland. He opposed several of his close colleagues who were getting swept in the political currents of the time and were even helping create deadly arsenal. Einstein could separate personal relationships with the larger pictures of what is right or wrong and clearly distanced himself from being part of coteries. During World War I, some of his colleagues like Fritz Haber, who was instrumental in developing chemical weapons, were declaring their allegiance to Germany, as there was a nationalistic feeling sweeping the country. Einstein could veer himself away from that kind of jingoism. It is perhaps very natural of him to not think in terms of associating with one country or the other mainly because of the expansive way he thinks about things, be it physics or politics. However when he saw that there is going to be a tactical or even a direct advantage for the side which is on the wrong side of history, he didn’t hesitate to correct it. That shows he is not as naive politically as some would like to paint him. In fact when he got some information about how Germany may succeed in making the Atomic bomb, he was the one to alert and write a letter F.D. Roosevelt to urge him to fund and create a project to make one in USA before the arch-nemesis, Germany had one! But later on it is the definition of irony when Einstein himself was censored and not allowed to visit or take part in any part of the project. It was perhaps because his independent mind would have raised some ‘unnecessary’ objections to the use of the deadly weapons or because some in the government were still suspecting him to be a communist. However, Einstein did help in developing some calculations for deployment of weapons for the U.S. Navy. All this show he is not all that impractical in dealing with world affairs.

It is amazing to observe that Einstein’s holistic view of the world is applicable even now and actually perhaps is an answer to several conflicts going on now. Although primarily Einstein’s views on how to keep the world order were pacifist, it became inevitable for him to accept war when it came to counter the Nazi aggression against all norms and in particular its tyranny over Jews. Einstein was the supreme victim of anti-semitism even in the area of his coveted fields of physics and mathematics. His theories were denounced as a mere philosophy and discredited over and over because he is a Jew. The discrimination made him more sympathetic to Jewish cause in his later part of life, although he himself identified as ‘pantheistic’. But he lent his hand to help the Jewish, as they were being marginalized and massacred by Hitler and his minions. He could clearly see the rich tradition behind the Jewish identity and in that respect he fully embraced it. However Einstein’s support for a Jewish state was very weak and he wished there is a greater agreement regarding this with the Arabs, and he was opposed to any forceful annexations and incursions. The book brought out his views on this clearly. When he was offered the presidentship of Israel, Einstein of course rejected it much to the relief of the leaders of Israel, for Einstein’s non-conformism would have put their agenda in trouble. The book brought out some aspects of this clearly, but is vague in identifying Einstein’s core belief in this regard. To me it looks like Einstein had a kind of prophetic view on this thorny issue of the Middle-East years back which has shaped up the recent past of the world in an immense way!

Einstein’s religious belief is the one which is close to what Spinoza spelt as ‘pantheism’ as per many sources and discussed in this book. But what he really believed and revered was in a power that has structured the universe with the powerful laws, some of which he himself could understand and expound. He believed in such a superior power, but not any personal god. For this kind of stance he was alienated or even castigated by both religious and atheistic groups, each accusing he is the other type! But he never wavered or wobbled over what he believed in. His opposition to quantum mechanics, where it has to deal with probabilities, and his statement that “God does not play dice”, was a testament that he believed in something predetermined that is there and is not dependent on what we observe. But the uncertainty principle says the mere observational power alters the state of a physical entity and one needs to take that into account while understanding the dynamics of it. It is proven beyond doubt uncertainty principle was the key answer to several quantum phenomenon but Einstein was set on course to prove it wrong, or to come up with something that can explain it as an approximation of a superior law,  but did not succeed and to his death he was working on proving it wrong. Does this show even Einstein a somewhat dogmatic person religiously sticking to his guns? Maybe. But it is perhaps not wrong in having an ideal and work for it as long as it is to unify the world view be it physics or politics! 

In all, Isaacson’s account of Einstein’s life and the Universe is a mammoth undertaking and he succeeded in presenting it in the most authentic sounding and factual way. I didn’t do any fact checking and things like that, but assuming his work is true to historical documents. In fact. the references at the end of the book run into several dozens of pages (around 90 pages!). For anyone who would want to know about how a genius like Einstein has happened, this is the book. The book verbalizes several concepts of his theories very well and with accuracy. I read books on Relativity by Einstein himself, by authors like Bertrand Russell, and this book is no less vivid in explaining it and several other theories Einstein brought out. I enjoyed reading it very much.