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…
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