By Michael Dirda
Sunday, April 15, 2007
His Life and Universe
By Walter Isaacson
Simon & Schuster. 675 pp. $32
By Jurgen Neffe
Translated from the German
By Shelley Frisch
Farrar Straus Giroux. 480 pp. $30
In the wonderland realm described by Einstein's theory of special relativity, simultaneity generally proves to be an illusion, but in the world of publishing, two good studies of the same subject will often appear at roughly the same time. Then, alas, a variant of another scientific doctrine -- Gresham's law -- typically goes into effect: One book tends to drive out the other.
Walter Isaacson's hefty biography of Albert Einstein (1879-1955) appears with lots of panoply -- including 11 blurbs by noted scientists and biographers -- and the author provides a thorough and patient account of a great thinker's life and achievements. The tone is rightly admiring, though fully aware of the saintly scientist's darker side -- at least one illegitimate child, several mistresses, a coldness to his family that verged on heartlessness and cruelty. The prose is straightforward and clear, essential when explaining complex ideas, though sometimes feeling airless or straitjacketed, as if Isaacson were afraid of making a mistake or showing any personal feeling. Like other popularizers before him, he works hard to explain Einstein's conceptual breakthroughs and to lay out his decades-long arguments with Niels Bohr and the progenitors of quantum mechanics. For, sad to say, after the age of 40, this once-revolutionary thinker grew increasingly conservative and stuck in his ways, never bringing himself to fully accept indeterminacy, uncertainty and chance as the secret governors of the universe. In a famous catchphrase, Einstein couldn't believe that God played with dice, and for decades he kept up the search for a "unified field theory" that would make sense of everything. Einstein: His Life and Universe covers all this and much else in a painstaking and reliable biography. You won't go wrong in reading and learning from it.
But Jurgen Neffe's exhilarating Einstein: A Biography is a lot more fun. At first, Neffe might sound like a German counterpart to Isaacson. Both are distinguished journalists, Neffe having won the Egon Erwin Kisch Award, "the most prestigious award for print journalism in Germany." While Isaacson is currently the CEO of the Aspen Institute, the German writer is affiliated with the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. The Neffe biography was even a bestseller in Germany, as Isaacson's earlier life of Benjamin Franklin was in the United States. Yet the two authors approach Albert Einstein quite differently, the American having written a rather stolid, even "Teutonic" study, while the German has produced a much jazzier one.
Neffe's zingy, dramatic style -- for which we must offer congratulations to his translator, Shelley Frisch -- sometimes calls to mind the New Yorker's John McPhee: His pages are rich in odd facts, take us deep into what one might call the Einstein industry and display both reverence for the genius and lèse-majesté before the man. While Isaacson diligently marches us through Einstein's life, thought and career, Neffe tends to be more freewheeling and thematic -- one of his chapters is titled "How Albert Became Einstein: The Psychological Makeup of a Genius"; another is called "The Burden of Inheritance: Einstein Detectives in Action." Yet Neffe's swagger and ease don't hide the fact that he's mastered a vast amount of material: He knows 20th-century German history, the development of physics since Galileo, the work of contemporary psychologists and philosophers on the nature of genius and media celebrity. Virtually all of Isaacson's references are to publications in English, and his book sometimes feels like a reporter's distillation of what others have discovered. By contrast, Neffe appears to have worked a bit harder and thought more for himself. For example, Isaacson tells us that Mozart was Einstein's favorite composer, but Neffe adds that the "Sonata for Piano and Violin in E Minor" was his favorite piece. He also discusses Einstein's cultural tastes, which were so deeply old-fashioned that the physicist found nearly all 20th-century art and music utterly incomprehensible or repellent, especially the works influenced by his own ideas. Furthermore, Neffe offers detailed information about the Einstein family's engineering business, which specialized in installing electric lighting, and shows how a boyhood spent around technical equipment influenced his later thought-experiments.
While discussing the crucial impact on the young Einstein's imagination of Aaron Bernstein's 20-volume Popular Books on Natural Science, Isaacson naturally draws on the major study in English of this formative reference work. But Neffe seems to have actually gone and read the books themselves, citing Bernstein more than 15 times, by volume and page number. He reveals through exact quotation how much Einstein's later formulations about gravity, light and space-time echo actual sentences from a child's introduction to the wonders of science. While the German's biography tends to focus on the youthful Einstein and on his cultural as well as scientific afterlife, Isaacson tells us more about the great man's years in America (from 1932 till his death), carefully narrates his involvement with the atomic bomb and movingly elucidates both his mature thinking about religion (God, he believed, could be found in the laws that ordered the universe) and his growing activism on behalf of world government. Isaacson's is, in this respect, the fuller life. But it would be a pity if his account completely overshadowed Neffe's, which is more personal, original and exciting. The latter, for instance, underscores that Einstein's English vocabulary was probably no more than a few hundred words and that the great man was often largely incomprehensible in our language. All his assistants at Princeton had to speak German.
For most of us, Albert Einstein remains the emblematic genius-holy man of modern science -- part Gandhi, part absent-minded professor, part wide-eyed child. (Neffe notes that Steven Spielberg modeled E.T.'s kindly and sorrowful eyes after those of Einstein.) In his later years at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, the physicist probably did become something close to a "Jewish saint" and sage, as he's often been described, but both biographies portray the younger Einstein as a man of unexpected, and sometimes unlikable, contradictions and polarities. As a student, he got a classmate pregnant, sent her away to have the baby (which he refused to see) and then apparently made the young woman give up the child for adoption. He regarded both of his wives as essentially caretakers, their main obligation being to see to his domestic needs. In the case of his first wife, he compelled her to forgo a promising scientific career and then treated her shabbily. He hardly ever saw their mentally ill younger son, whom he dismissed as degenerate.
After claiming for years to despise all forms of nationalism, Einstein nonetheless became an enthusiastic Zionist. He spoke up strongly for pacifism throughout the 1920s, but once Hitler rose to power, he grew full of martial anti-Nazi ardor. This isn't to say that he was wrong to embrace his Jewish identity or to fear Hitler's evil, but his ideological flip-flops are nonetheless disconcerting. Similarly, he initiated the development of the atomic bomb as a weapon against the hated Third Reich, yet deplored its use on Japan. He was largely indifferent to the victims of Stalin's show trials and purges but strongly supported the Pugwash conferences for world peace. What's more, this childlike genius absolutely required full-time assistants, housekeepers and support staff to live his simple, Spartan life. He also clearly loved publicity, women and sleep (Neffe tells us he generally slept at least 10 hours a night and often took naps). Though Einstein's may be the very face of scientific genius, he never really advanced much in his thought after winning the Nobel Prize in 1921 and, despite being widely revered, gradually lost touch with the cutting edge of physics.
After finishing some biographies, readers often feel an increased admiration for the subject. This isn't true for Einstein. More and more, he seems almost as flawed a human being as Pablo Picasso, John F. Kennedy and so many other icons of the 20th century. Read either of these two books and that well-known face will never look quite the same again. Still, it probably doesn't matter very much. Einstein provides one case when we might surely say: It's the thought that counts. ·
Michael Dirda's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.