Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson, Simon & Schuster, 675 pages, $32.
In early 1931, Albert Einstein paid a visit to California that confirmed his status as a global celebrity. After being serenaded by 500 local girls upon his arrival in San Diego, he attended the Rose Bowl parade and visited Hollywood studios, all the while tracked by a gaggle of reporters. The visit’s key moment came when another tramp-like icon, Charlie Chaplin, invited him to attend the premiere of City Lights. They were greeted by rapturous applause, whereupon Chaplin explained to his bemused guest that “people cheer me because they all understand me, and they cheer you because nobody understands you.”
Both Jürgen Neffe and Walter Isaacson feature this anecdote in their new biographies of the 20th century’s greatest scientist. It’s easy to see why. Not only does it underline the adoration that the physicist engendered among a public that was largely ignorant of his theories, but it also hints at a biographer’s dilemma when faced with a subject who so deeply mixes familiarity and obscurity. Because we cannot do the math, our adulation of Einstein relies heavily on faith in the purity of his soul. Few college students tack his poster above their beds because they admire his use of the Ricci tensor; they do it because they see a prophet’s all-knowing, all-forgiving grace in those crinkly eyes (the purported model for Spielberg’s E.T.)
Mr. Neffe, a German science journalist, takes a bracingly corrective stance toward his hallowed subject in Einstein, a best-seller when published in the physicist’s native land two years ago. The author is capable of admiration, but the book falls well short of hagiography: “Rarely has a single individual been so farsighted and myopic at the same time.” Mr. Neffe’s Einstein is a darker character than the kindly, pacifistic, absent-minded professor of popular legend. The biographer reveals “another Einstein, genius and lover, in his magnificence and his cruelty.”
Certainly, the lineaments of the mythical story are still here—the dreamy childhood, the astonishing 1905 theoretical breakthroughs while working full time in a patent office, the pacifism and flight from Hitler, the shambling dotage in Princeton. But there’s also a portrait of a deeply troubled family man, a trait most notable in his relationship with his first wife, Serbian-born Mileva Maric. Mr. Neffe recounts the sad story surrounding the abandonment of their illegitimate daughter, Lieserl, and scolds that “it is remarkable that Einstein never saw his first child …. It would not have been impossible to do so.” Mr. Neffe also has harsh words about Einstein’s relationship with his two sons: “Einstein’s vacillating behavior toward his children inflicted permanent damage on them.” He even hints that Einstein might have abused Mileva. “Supposedly the divorce papers—which are under lock and key in Jerusalem—also make mention of violence in their marriage.”
Mr. Neffe takes a mixed view of Einstein’s political career. Einstein’s pacifism and his Zionism are pictured as blending “productive contributions and counterproductive faux pas.” As for America, Mr. Neffe claims that Einstein’s shoddy treatment by the F.B.I. and his horror at McCarthyism caused him to “shed any illusions about a freedom-loving America, and the last five years of his life may well have been the saddest chapter of his life.” In the end, Mr.
Neffe’s portrait depicts a theoretician of unprecedented creativity and clarity whose forays into the real world were shot through with chaos and contradiction. One closes this rigorously researched and finely written biography full of admiration for the scientist, but perhaps a little less inclined to pin his visage between Bono and the Dalai Lama on the dorm-room wall.
THE REVOLUTIONARY INSIGHT OF EINSTEIN’S SPECIAL theory of relativity was that there’s no such thing as a privileged observer. As Mr. Neffe points out, “[n]o frame of reference is preferred or absolute; every point of view is equal.” Contrasting Mr. Neffe’s book to Walter Isaacson’s far gentler Einstein: His Life and Universe would seem to confirm the hypothesis. Although both men describe the same phenomenon, their points of view are markedly dissimilar. For instance, where Mr. Neffe claims that Einstein “failed miserably at marriage—twice,” Mr. Isaacson paints a very different portrait of his second marriage, to his cousin Elsa. “So even if it was not the stuff of poetry, the bond between them was a solid one. It was forged by satisfying each other’s desires and needs, it was genuine, and it worked in both directions.” His parenting is considerably less destructive here, particularly with his eldest son, Hans Albert.
Although the father and son had troubled relations when the boy was a teen, according to Mr. Isaacson, they became close after Hans Albert immigrated to America—hardly the stuff of permanent damage. Mr. Isaacson, a former managing editor at Time magazine and biographer of Henry Kissinger and Ben Franklin, also breaks with Mr. Neffe on Einstein’s attitude toward his tenure in America. Einstein, he claims, simply did not “fully appreciate how resilient America’s democracy and its nurturing of individual liberty could be. So for a while his disdain deepened. But he was saved from serious despair by his wry detachment and his sense of humor. He was not destined to die a bitter man.”
Is Mr. Isaacson’s view too rosy? His account of the great arc of Einstein’s life is certainly very satisfying. The depiction of Einstein’s quixotic efforts to come up with a unified-field theory, which consumed the last 25 years of his life and bore no fruit (at least to date), is particularly good. During this period, Einstein went from being the revolutionary outsider who toppled the certainties of Newtonian physics to a reactionary old-guarder who could not accept the indeterminacy of Werner Heisenberg’s and Niels Bohr’s quantum mechanics. He could never admit that our physical universe was random and irrational. According to Mr. Isaacson, this faith repeated itself in his concurrent efforts to create a “one-world” political structure that would obviate suffering, war and the atomic weapons for which he was held at least partially responsible. “Just as he sought a unified theory in science that could govern the cosmos, so he sought one in politics that could govern the planet, one that would overcome the anarchy of unfettered nationalism through a world federalism based on universal principles.” Messrs. Neffe and Isaacson both hint that there’s still hope that, one day, Einstein’s valedictory equations might help define a unified-field theory of physics. Fifty years after his death, the prospect that his thirst for peace and understanding will inspire a similar breakthrough on the political front appears far less likely.
Stephen Amidon’s most recent novel is Human Capital (Picador).