Sunday, May 27, 2007

178)Einstein=Genius squared: the man who taught us key insights about the Universal "Soul that sustains, embraces and is the Universe".

"And from the 20th century, just one figure spawns such a steady flow of scholarship, the genius who, while working as a patent clerk in Bern, Switzerland, toppled Newton's framework of space and time and would, over the next decade, develop an entirely new picture of the universe."

Other posts by me where Albert Einstein is either mentioned or discussed:


Einstein = Genius2

May 26, 2007

His Life and Universe
By Walter Isaacson
Simon & Schuster,
Print Edition - Section Front
551 pages, $38.99

There are a handful of personalities from history who loom so large that new biographies appear every few years, whether modern research has unearthed anything new about their lives or not. In the world of science, however, that "A-list" is extremely short: Newton and Darwin, of course; perhaps Galileo. And from the 20th century, just one figure spawns such a steady flow of scholarship, the genius who, while working as a patent clerk in Bern, Switzerland, toppled Newton's framework of space and time and would, over the next decade, develop an entirely new picture of the universe.

Just two years ago, the world marked the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein's annus mirabilis, in which he not only developed the first part of his relativity theory but also laid down the foundations of quantum theory and wrote two other groundbreaking papers on the structure and motion of atoms and molecules. With all the media attention triggered by the anniversary - entire issues of Scientific American and Discover dedicated to Einstein, and a flurry of books, articles and documentaries - one wonders how much is left to be said.

Or at least one would wonder, if the central figure were any other frizzy-haired physicist. But the case of Einstein seems to be unique. His intellect and personality, for reasons not completely understood, have captured the public imagination like no other figure past or present, and our appetite for insights into the workings of his mind seems boundless.

As vast as the Einstein literature is, this latest biography, from journalist and author Walter Isaacson, is a welcome addition and will likely find a wide audience. Isaacson, a former managing editor of Time and author of a recent popular biography of Benjamin Franklin, has written a straightforward yet rich and engaging account of Einstein's life, a well-crafted mix of biography and science.

For anyone who has already dipped into the Einstein literature, much of the story is familiar: the unorthodox approach to physics that would make finding a first job difficult, but which would pay off in sheer discovery; the tumultuous personal life that would encompass two marriages and numerous affairs, but few deep personal bonds; the struggle to defend pacifism in a world twice plunged into seemingly inescapable wars; the search for unifying order in a universe that does not easily give up its secrets.

Isaacson has gleaned the latest revelations from the Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, an ongoing project that has so far published all of Einstein's known correspondence and writings up to 1920. (As well, his list of acknowledgments reads like a who's who of Einstein scholarship.) The most noteworthy of those findings are no longer very new: We've known about Einstein's extramarital affairs for some time, as well as the less-than-commendable way that he sometimes treated his first wife, Mileva Maric. Even the file the FBI kept on Einstein, once secret, is now freely available on the agency's website.

Even so, Isaacson does find some nuggets that appear to have passed largely unnoticed by previous biographers. One is the tragic story of Einstein's cousin. Roberto Einstein and his family lived in Italy during the German occupation; as Nazi troops were retreating, soldiers murdered his wife and two daughters and burned his house. Roberto, who had been in hiding, survived, but committed suicide the following year.

Isaacson also weighs in with sober assessments of the various claims and allegations that have attached themselves to Einstein over the years: that he fared poorly in math class (not true); that he was autistic (no hard evidence); that Mileva played a crucial role in the development of relativity (again, no hard evidence); that his work at the patent office inspired that same breakthrough (it may have played a small role, Isaacson acknowledges); that mathematician David Hilbert was on the verge of discovering general relativity just as Einstein developed his equations (it's unlikely that Hilbert would have made such a breakthrough had he not been following Einstein's own progress).

Of course, Isaacson covers the science, too, and does it well. His explanations of special and general relativity, quantum theory and cosmology are clear and thorough, without being needlessly technical. Even so, a reader interested primarily in Einstein's science may prefer Michio Kaku's Einstein's Universe, or the more comprehensive (but older) Subtle is the Lord, by Abraham Pais. And this book could have used a diagram or two.

One small quirk bothered me. On at least two occasions, Isaacson seems to downplay the significance of the brain - a strange bias, considering the subject matter. He wonders why Einstein, like so many physicists and mathematicians, had his greatest insights before the age of 40. He acknowledges that it is an "occupational hazard" for those in such professions to shine while young, but doesn't mention the most obvious reason: the physiological deterioration of the brain with age.

Later, in the epilogue, Isaacson summarizes the findings (incomplete as they are) of researchers who have studied parts of Einstein's brain. He then adds that "any true understanding of Einstein's imagination and intuition will not come from poking around at his patterns of glia and grooves. The relevant question was how his mind worked, not his brain" (Isaacson's emphasis). Maybe so, but the suggestion that minds are independent of brains seems a little quaint in light of 21st-century neuroscience.

Dan Falk is a science journalist and the author of Universe on a T-Shirt: The Quest for the Theory of Everything. He is writing a book about time.


Islam, eminently logical, placing the greatest emphasis on knowledge, purports to understand God's creation:Aga Khan 4(2006)
The God of the Quran is the One whose Ayats(Signs) are the Universe in which we live, move and have our being:Aga Khan 3(1952)
Our interpretation of Islam places enormous value on knowledge. Knowledge is the reflection of faith if it is used properly. Seek out that knowledge and use it properly:Aga Khan 4(2005)