Saturday, June 24, 2006

Book Review: Albert Einstein

One of my favorite categories of books to read is biography. I got a little over my head on this Einstein biography (coming in at 751 pages), but the experience took me back through my engineering days at Baylor. Many of the physical ideas you study in engineering includes mathematical & physical constants names after famous people (Planck, Heisenberg, Bohr, etc.). I enjoyed reading Einstein's biography for two reasons: one, it put a life on all these names that I have known since high school physics (since they were contemporaries of Einstein), and two, Einstein lived through a remarkable time of development in understanding nature while at the same time seeing how the depravity of humanity was capable of so much death and destruction (he lived through both world wars). His life reminds me of the lives of so many famous men who had remarkable professional careers and terrible personal lives. Einstein was freakishly smart & wrote most of his groundbreaking papers while he was working at a patent office (after being rejected for positions at universities). Those same universities were begging Einstein to come on faculty after he published his major works on the photoelectric effect (where he redefined the nature of light) and special relativity. In the midst of all this professional accomplishment, Einstein had one daughter before he was married & convinced his soon-to-be-wife to give his daughter up for adoption (he ended up never even meeting this child). Later in life, he divorced his first wife (with whom he had two sons by this point) and married his cousin. Even with his new wife, however, he did not remain faithful, and used his fame to date all kinds of women while he was married to his cousin. What a mess. Some of the most fascinating aspects of the book revolve around Einstein's developing view of his Jewish identity & his view of God. He was never able to believe in the personal God of the Judeo-Christian faiths who is involved in history, but he did understand that God had structured the universe according to natural laws. His was more of a deistic understanding of the blind watchmaker who got everything going in the beginning & let us discover his work. This conviction is what made Einstein reject much of quantum mechanics in his effort to develop a unified field theory (which he never accomplished) and make his famous quote that "God does not role dice with the universe." All in all, brilliant physicist, terrible husband and father, wrapped in a technical biography that will not interest those without a technical background.

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