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Eternal Einstein

Behind the legendary thinker's astonishing legacy and enigmatic nature

Einstein: His Life and Universe
By Walter Isaacson
Simon & Schuster
, 675 pp., illustrated, $32

Few individuals in history have attained the celebrity status of Albert Einstein -- a man whose name is synonymous with genius. Certainly no scientist was ever as famous, and the Einstein shelves in bookstores and libraries are overflowing. But trying to understand what Einstein was about is not easy, and many of his biographers have been stumped by the apparent contradictions in his life. Einstein was a loner, and yet was one of the most sociable scientists ever; he loved intensely, yet often appeared callous; he pioneered quantum mechanics, yet refused to believe it was a complete theory; his famous formula E=mc{+2} enabled the harnessing of atomic power, yet he was a sworn pacifist; he renounced his German citizenship and moved to Switzerland, only to return to his homeland for a prestigious position in Berlin.

Einstein himself foreshadowed the difficulties people would have in understanding who he really was when, on the eve of the astronomical discovery that would establish the validity of his general theory of relativity, he wrote to the London Times (Nov. 28, 1919): "By an application of the theory of relativity , today in Germany I am called a German man of science , and in England I am represented as a Swiss Jew. If I come to be regarded as a bête noire, the descriptions will be reversed, and I shall become a Swiss Jew for the Germans and German man of science for the English ! "

Because Einstein's life was so complex, and his approach to science so astoundingly novel and difficult to understand, few biographies of him have been successful. Of those, the ones written by people who were closest to Einstein -- European physicists of similar background who knew him personally, most notably Philipp Frank and Abraham Pais -- came closest to uncovering the real Einstein. Many others were mediocre, and some were below any standards.

Now a new biography of Einstein has been published, "Einstein: His Life and Universe," by Walter Isaacson, and I must admit that I was skeptical when I picked it up. But I was in for a pleasant surprise. While he is not a physicist, Isaacson, who has written a successful biography of Benjamin Franklin, was aided by an army of physicists including media star Brian Greene and Nobel laureate Murray Gell-Mann , and these scientists have done a good job vetting the technical information .

Overall, this is an excellent book and has much to recommend it. Isaacson's biography is well researched and contains a surprising amount of new information about its enigmatic subject. The author has benefited from ongoing research carried out around the world from Berlin to Jerusalem, to Princeton, and to Boston, with its centers for the history of science. Through the use of many scholarly articles about the great physicist, Einstein emerges as a flesh-and-blood figure -- a human with good qualities and flaws. Even Einstein scholars will likely find here facts they hadn't known.

Isaacson's writing style is engaging and lively, although at times the subject matter slows him down somewhat. The technical sections on the special and the general theories of relativity would have gained much from the use of figures to illustrate the concepts. These are completely lacking, with the exception of one very small, and rather useless, diagram republished from one of Einstein's books. This lack of visual aids is regrettable -- I have never read any description of the theory of relativity that did not include diagrams: The concepts involved are so complicated that only an expert can understand them without several visual aids (and this book is not aimed at experts).

Isaacson starts by debunking the most persistent public misconception about Einstein: that as a student he was poor in math. He reveals that many thousands of Internet pages make this claim, and shows that it is simply false and that in fact Einstein was an excellent mathematician. But the author does not follow this trail to its conclusion, and falls into the same trap he wants his readers to avoid. When describing the race between Einstein and the renowned German mathematician David Hilbert to reach the ultimate goal of general relativity -- the field equations of gravitation -- the author writes that Hilbert was a better mathematician. This is simply not true. Once a physical situation has been translated into mathematics, the problem of finding the equations that satisfy given conditions becomes a task in pure mathematics. Einstein completed this task correctly, while Hilbert did not. Thus no one could say that Hilbert was a "better" mathematician than Einstein.

In a wider context, Einstein, while certainly "unique," followed in a long line of mathematical physicists from Archimedes to Galileo, Descartes, and Newton. These were all individuals with a strong interest in the physical world around them who labored to discover its secrets, but equally they all possessed supreme mathematical skills that enabled them to carry out such deep analyses. They were great mathematicians who applied their skills to physics. And so was Einstein.

There are a few other flaws in the book. One is Isaacson's pursuit of an unconfirmed rumor about Einstein's love life. Isaacson reprints an entire letter from Einstein's second cousin, 20-year-old Ilse Einstein, to her lover. In this letter, which has attracted the attention of some over eager and gullible Einstein scholars, Ilse writes: "I know that Albert loves me very much, perhaps more than any other man ever will." A careful reading of the letter gives the overwhelming impression that it was both an elaborate joke and a young woman's attempt to gain attention for her association with a famous man. There is certainly no other evidence from any source that Einstein was ever romantically interested in this young woman, whose mother he eventually married and who thus became his beloved stepdaughter. But the author prevaricates, leaving the reader with the hint that perhaps there was more to this letter.

Possibly, this problem and others arise from Isaacson's use of some secondary sources of dubious quality among a large totality of references, most of which are helpful and dependable. But the flaws in this biography are minor, and the book emerges as a major and authoritative work on one of the most interesting figures in the history of science.

Amir D. Aczel is an author and science scholar whose forthcoming book is "The Jesuit and the Skull."