Why more books on Albert Einstein? Two years ago we marked the Year of Physics, celebrating the centenary of his great 1905 papers, including those on special relativity and the particle theory of light. There is already a definitive scientific biography, published by Abraham Pais in 1982. That Einstein had an interesting personal life, with many entanglements with women and at least one extramarital child, has not been news since Roger Highfield and Paul Carter’s The Private Lives of Albert Einstein and Dennis Overbye’s Einstein in Love, published in 1994 and 2000, respectively. His private letters continue to come to light, but do they really add anything to the portrait of Einstein’s character drawn so perceptively by Overbye?
In his new book, Einstein: His Life and Universe, Walter Isaacson explains that
studying Einstein can be worthwhile [because] it helps us remain in touch with that childlike capacity for wonder…as the sagas of [science’s] heroes reminds us…. These traits are…vital for this new century of globalization, in which our success will depend on our creativity….
As he elaborates in a recent interview with Thomas Friedman, “If we are going to have any advantage over China, it is because we nurture rebellious, imaginative free thinkers, rather than try to control expression.”1
Noble sentiments, and certainly sufficient justification for continuing to promulgate uplifting myths about science and its heroes. But what does this have to do with the actual character and life of the real person who happened to be the most important physicist of the last two hundred years? There is no doubt that any attempt to understand who Einstein actually was and what he actually did is hampered by a smokescreen that was created by his executors, his colleagues, his biographers, and perhaps even Einstein himself. The myth of Einstein presents us with an elderly sage, a clownish proto-hippy with long hair, no socks, and a bumbling, otherworldly manner. As Isaacson writes it:
Adding to his aura was his simple humanity. His inner security was tempered by the humility that comes from being awed by nature. He could be detached and aloof from those close to him, but toward mankind in general he exuded a true kindness and gentle compassion.
This certainly describes a role that the older Einstein might plausibly have chosen to play as a defense against the onslaught of fame and responsibility. But what Isaacson is describing is a role, not a human being. Who was the person behind that role, and what were his reasons for playing the endearing sage?
Of the new books, Jürgen Neffe’s Einstein: A Biography is the liveliest. It was a big success in Germany and one can see why. His prose is lively and the unconventional organization of his book, by theme rather than chronology, with asides about current science, tells an engaging version of Einstein’s story. Neffe is not afraid to speculate on the personality of the man behind the myth, even if not all his hypotheses are convincing. At the same time Neffe also tells the heroic story of the scholars hired by the Einstein Papers Project to catalog and publish Einstein’s collected papers as they struggled with, sued, and cajoled the executors and family to get the access to the letters and documents they needed to do their job.
The project was launched in 1986 under the joint sponsorship of Princeton University Press and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. As Neffe explains, the executors, Otto Nathan and Helen Dukas,
made life difficult for anyone who tried to gain access to the approximately 42,000 items in the archives…. Hence it was not surprising that important papers vanished…. It is uncertain how many documents were removed from Einstein’s estate after his death. There is no doubt, however, that documents casting Einstein in an unfavorable light, at least in the opinion of his trustees, were eliminated.
As a result, the efforts of the scholars associated with the Einstein Papers Project—which is now based at the California Institute of Technology—have only recently begun to yield a mature understanding of Einstein’s character and his work. Anyone who really wants to get to know Einstein can do no better than immerse themselves in the books and papers coming out of the Einstein Papers Project, which has so far published ten volumes of correspondence and writings spanning the period from Einstein’s youth up to 1920.
Less ambitious readers who want an introduction to Einstein’s story, taking into account all the latest discoveries of letters and organized in a conventional chronological format, will find Isaacson’s workmanlike biography well worth reading. But I found his clearly written account marred by unconvincing attempts to reassure us that we need not be overly concerned by Einstein’s rough edges. For example, Isaacson takes pains to assure us that Einstein’s criticisms of quantum mechanics, which led to his dissenting from the theory that most of his colleagues thought was the greatest advance of the period, have since been resolved, an assertion that will surprise many scientists who continue to debate and study the issues.
Isaacson also assures us that Einstein’s worries about McCarthyism were “overstated” because “as it turned out, American democracy righted itself, as it always has…. Einstein was not used to self-righting systems…and did not fully appreciate how resilient America’s democracy and its nurturing of individual liberty could be.” Why does Isaacson feel he has to assure us that we don’t need to take his subject’s political views too seriously?
The problem any biographer faces is that Einstein scholarship is still digging itself out of decades of mythmaking. While it is possible to extract a picture of a real person from the recent books, it takes some work, as the writers themselves still seem too much in awe and accept too easily the sanitized and domesticated version of the fierce and unruly spirit who was the greatest scientist in living memory. To untangle the person from the myth we can begin with the parts of the myth—both personal and scientific—that are inconsistent and incredible.
First the young Einstein, the one who actually made the great discoveries we associate with his name, is nothing like the mellow sage described during his Princeton years. He was seen by his contemporaries as arrogant, intolerant of authority, charismatic, good-looking, manipulative, and avidly engaged in his relationships with women, his children, his friendships, his music. One of his classmates described him as follows:
Sure of himself, his gray felt hat pushed back on his thick, black hair, he strode energetically up and down in a rapid, I might almost say, crazy, tempo of a restless spirit which carries a whole world in itself. Nothing escaped the sharp gaze of his bright brown eyes. Whoever approached him immediately came under the spell of his superior personality. A sarcastic curl of his rather full mouth with the protruding lower lip did not encourage philistines to fraternize with him. Unhampered by convention, his attitude towards the world was that of the laughing philosopher, and his witty mockery pitilessly lashed any conceit or pose.
David Reichinstein, a young physical chemist who knew Einstein in Zurich, wrote that “Einstein can express a strong dislike, and can fly into a passion, becoming intolerant and even unjust.” Einstein, in a rare written attempt at introspection, referred to his “hypersensitivity masquerading as indifference.”
The young Einstein’s contempt toward anyone in authority was strongly expressed and likely hurt his career. After an exchange with Paul Drude in which the unknown student tried, unsuccessfully, to point out an error in the professor’s work, he wrote,
It is such manifest proof of the wretchedness of its author that no further comment by me is necessary. From now on I’ll no longer turn to such people, and will instead attack them mercilessly in the journals, as they deserve.
The question that needs to be answered, although none of the biographers do so, is how this arrogant, charismatic revolutionary turned into the otherworldly sage who was said to be an “emblem…of the mature and reflective human being.” The man who was once seen as childish became admired for being childlike. How did this happen? Had Einstein become resigned after facing political and personal tragedies, or was his new character, as Overbye and Neffe both suspect, at least partly an act? “Einstein the lonely genius,” as Neffe writes, “was partly a creation of his own making.”
Peter Bergmann, a physicist who collaborated with Einstein at Princeton, used to recount Einstein’s reaction to their walk being interrupted once more by a stranger wanting to meet the great man. Einstein chatted amiably but when the person left he remarked, “Well, the elephant has gone through his paces again.”
Evidence that Einstein’s otherworldliness was at least partly a conscious strategy is to be found in a letter of spring 1915 to his good friend Heinrich Zangger, a doctor he had met in Bern, in which he explained how he kept his cool when his colleagues and friends in 1915 Berlin became fervid about pursuing war:
I always fare the best with my innocuousness, which is up to 20 percent conscious. This is easily attained when you’re indifferent to the feelings of your dear fellow humans—but you are never as indifferent to them as they deserve.
Then he explained what was really important to him: “I live completely withdrawn and yet I’m not lonely, thanks to the kind care of a cousin [his lover Elsa] who was the one who drew me to Berlin.”
Einstein’s letters show that in fact he was capable of considerable sensitivity to the feelings of other people. Here, in a letter quoted by Isaacson, is how he resolved a difficult conflict with the great mathematician David Hilbert over who should get credit for the equations of general relativity in December 1915:
There has been a certain ill-feeling between us, the cause of which I do not want to analyze. I have struggled against the feeling of bitterness attached to it, with complete success. I think of you again with unmixed geniality and ask you to try to do the same with me. It is a shame when two real fellows who have extricated themselves somewhat from this shabby world do not afford each other mutual pleasure.
And here he is in 1911, again in letters quoted by Isaacson, writing to Marie Curie to express support for her during a scandal caused by disclosures of a relationship with a married man:
Do not laugh at me for writing you without having anything sensible to say. But I am so enraged by the base manner in which the public is presently daring to concern itself with you that I absolutely must give vent to this feeling. I am impelled to tell you how much I have come to admire your intellect, your drive, and your honesty, and that I consider myself lucky to have made your personal acquaintance in Brussels. Anyone who does not number himself among these reptiles is certainly happy, now as before, that we have such personages among us as you….
"China Needs An Einstein. So Do We." The New York Times, April 27, 2007.↩
“China Needs An Einstein. So Do We.” The New York Times, April 27, 2007.↩