Walter Isaacson’s biography of Einstein, currently being broadcast as a docudrama by National Geographic, is a skillful, complete, sympathetic but objective study of perhaps the greatest genius who ever lived. It gives equal attention to Einstein’s personal life, his scientific accomplishments, and his outspoken support for peace, freedom and tolerance.
I’ll skip the personal life, though it’s interesting, and first compliment Isaacson for limning out an element of Einstein’s habits of thought sometimes overlooked or underemphasized. In the most fundamental way, Einstein’s breakthroughs relied upon Hume’s skepticism, Kant’s idealism, and Mach’s empiricism. Famous for being a theoretical physicist, not an experimental physicist, Einstein turned mental pictures into scientific theories employing as much pure logic as imagination, geometry and mathematics. His techniques and intellectual criteria were, in essence, philosophical. Here we encounter the convergence of all thought, its limits as well as its flexibility. We think of the theory of relativity as “scientific,” which it is, but it is more than that; it is simultaneously an expression of the human mind and the natural world… as constrained by philosophical, as opposed to empirical, possibility.
Ultimately, Isaacson argues, Einstein settled into a kind of realism that contended something lies beyond what we can think or demonstrate. In this we sense a bit of Schopenhauer and a bit of Spinoza, both a bit soft in comparison to the three thinkers mentioned above. Einstein’s realism drove him to the end of his life, fruitlessly pursuing a unified field theory wherein quantum mechanics and relativity mesh. Einstein helped create quantum theory, but he never liked it because its uncertainties made fools of us…and der Alte (God, the Old One).
The latter half of Einstein’s life was marked more by engagement in world affairs than scientific breakthroughs. Isaacson portrays him as a spokesman for world government, disarmament, freedom and tolerance who learned bitter lessons from World War I, the rise of the Nazis and World War II, the totalitarianism of the Soviet Union, and the fear mongering of Joseph McCarthy and his ilk. And add to all that Einstein’s complex relationship to his Jewishness, Jews in general, and the new state of Israel.
As the world’s most famous scientist, Einstein could and did make himself heard. He was remarkably eloquent, insightful, and yet humble when he spoke out against oppression, the hydrogen bomb, anti-capitalists and anti-communists alike. He tended toward socialism, or egalitarianism, without overestimating its possibilities. He stood by friends who were attacked and accepted responsibility for speaking out in behalf of strangers. As a personage, he was adulated and condemned. Today we may think of him as a beneficent, other-worldly angel. During his lifetime, he wasn’t always treated as an angel, nor did he think of himself as an angel. Again, he was astonishingly humble.
Five and six and seven hundred page biographies always run the risk, for me, anyway, of becoming litanies–this…then that…then this. The best part of this biography is, and has to be, the part focused on Einstein’s intellectual miracles, covering a span of time roughly from 1905 through 1915. How do you go about thinking things no one has ever thought…or ever asked…before? Einstein’s life gives us an idea how: imagine visually, guide philosophically, and then document mathematically.
Easier said than done. E=mc2 makes perfect sense when you think about it, but first you have to think about it. It takes an Einstein for that.