Albert Einstein

date Jul 1, 2014
authors Walter Issacson
reading time 13 mins

This book is possibly one of my most important reading this year. Through the life of Einstein, it reveals how years of tenacity and child-like wonder towards everything around us triumphs at the end of the day.

Give it a read if you are interested in physics and having a view of the world through politics, war and peace.

His tale encompasses the vast sweep of modern science, from the infinitesimal to the infinite, from the emission of photons to the expansion of the cosmos. A century after his great triumphs, we are still living in Einstein’s universe, one defined on the macro scale by his theory of relativity and on the micro scale by a quantum mechanics that has proven durable even as it remains disconcerting.

##Young Einstein

derivation from maths

“As a boy of 12, I was thrilled to see that it was possible to find out truth by reasoning alone, without the help of any outside experience,” he told a reporter from a high school newspaper in Princeton years later. “I became more and more convinced that nature could be understood as a relatively simple mathematical structure.”


Einstein later recalled the revelation, and the realist attitude, that this instilled in him as a young boy: “Out yonder there was this huge world, which exists independently of us human beings and which stands before us like a great, eternal riddle.”

visualisation and intuitions versus rote learning

philosophy of a Swiss educational reformer of the early nineteenth century, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, who believed in encouraging students to visualize images. He also thought it important to nurture the “inner dignity” and individuality of each child. Students should be allowed to reach their own conclusions, Pestalozzi preached, by using a series of steps that began with hands-on observations and then proceeded to intuitions, conceptual thinking, and visual imagery. It was even possible to learn and truly understand the laws of math and physics that way. Rote drills, memorization, and force-fed facts were avoided.

riding on the light beam

it was at this school that Einstein first engaged in the visualized thought experiment that would help make him the greatest scientific genius of his time: he tried to picture what it would be like to ride alongside a light beam.

various sentiments

The political sentiments he had felt as a boy — a contempt for arbitrary authority, an aversion to militarism and nationalism, a respect for individuality, a disdain for bourgeois consumption or ostentatious wealth, and a desire for social equality — had been encouraged by his landlord and surrogate father in Aarau, Jost Winteler.

##Other qualities


Einstein churned out job-seeking letters, ever more pleading, to professors around Europe. They were accompanied by his paper on the capillary effect, which proved not particularly impressive; he rarely even received the courtesy of a response. “I will soon have graced every physicist from the North Sea to the southern tip of Italy with my offer,”


reveal something more subtle about Einstein’s scientific thinking: he had an urge indeed, a compulsion to unify concepts from different branches of physics. “It is a glorious feeling to discover the unity of a set of phenomena that seem at first to be completely separate,” he wrote to his friend Grossmann as he embarked that spring on an attempt to tie his work on capillarity to Boltzmann’s theory of gases.

on comforts

He made her promise, however, that marriage would not turn them into a comfortable bourgeois couple: “We’ll diligently work on science together so we don’t become old philistines, right?” Even his sister, he felt, was becoming “so crass” in her approach to creature comforts. “You’d better not get that way,”

staying on

Up until then, Einstein had published five little-noted papers. They had earned him neither a doctorate nor a teaching job, even at a high school. Had he given up theoretical physics at that point, the scientific community would not have noticed, and he might have moved up the ladder to become the head of the Swiss Patent Office, a job in which he would likely have been very good indeed.

simplicity in explaining

Now let’s look at how Einstein articulated all of this in the famous paper that the Annalen der Physik received on June 30, 1905. For all its momentous import, it may be one of the most spunky and enjoyable papers in all of science. Most of its insights are conveyed in words and vivid thought experiments, rather than in complex equations. There is some math involved, but it is mainly what a good high school senior could comprehend.

conservatism vs revolutionary

The essential difference between Poincaré and Einstein was that Poincaré was by temperament conservative and Einstein was by temperament revolutionary. When Poincaré looked for a new theory of electromagnetism, he tried to preserve as much as he could of the old. He loved the ether and continued to believe in it, even when his own theory showed that it was unobservable.

burst of creativity

Einstein’s 1905 burst of creativity was astonishing. He had devised a revolutionary quantum theory of light, helped prove the existence of atoms, explained Brownian motion, upended the concept of space and time, and produced what would become science’s best known equation.

tune out distractions

One of his strengths as a thinker, if not as a parent, was that he had the ability, and the inclination, to tune out all distractions, a category that to him sometimes included his children and family.

tenacity and solitary

Part of Einstein’s genius was his tenacity. He could cling to a set of ideas, even in the face of “apparent contradiction” (as he put it in his 1905 relativity paper). He also had a deep faith in his intuitive feel for the physical world. Working in a more solitary manner than most other scientists, he held true to his own instincts, despite the qualms of others.

##Physics and Maths

light as wave and particle

his idea was to split a light beam, reflect it in different directions, and see if there was “a difference in energy depending on whether or not the direction was along the earth’s motion through the ether.” This could be done, he posited, by “using two thermoelectric piles to examine the difference of the heat generated in them.”

relative time

It made no sense, he said, to speak of time as having an absolute existence that was independent of observable objects whose movements permitted us to define time.”From the succession of ideas and impressions we form the idea of time,” Hume wrote. “It is not possible for time alone ever to make its appearance.” This idea that there is no such thing as absolute time would later echo in Einstein’s theory of relativity.

distance and time

Indeed, there is no absolute right. All that can be said is that each is moving relative to the other. And of course, both are moving very rapidly relative to other planets, stars, and galaxies.

gravity and geometry

But by 1912, Einstein had come to appreciate that math could be a tool for discovering and not merely describing nature’s laws. Math was nature’s playbook. “The central idea of general relativity is that gravity arises from the curvature of spacetime,” says physicist James Hartle. “Gravity is geometry.”

space and matter

As the physicist John Wheeler has put it, “Matter tells space-time how to curve, and curved space tells matter how to move.”

infinite or finite universe

Einstein began by noting that an absolutely infinite universe filled with stars and other objects was not plausible. There would be an infinite amount of gravity tugging at every point and an infinite amount of light shining from every direction. On the other hand, a finite universe floating at some random location in space was inconceivable as well.

quantum mechanics

Once again, Einstein was at the forefront of discovering an aspect of quantum theory that would cause him discomfort in the future. And once again, younger colleagues would embrace his ideas more readily than he would just as he had once embraced the implications of the ideas of Planck, Poincaré, and Lorentz more readily than they had.

##Other stories

always ask

Ostwald still did not answer. However, in one of history’s nice ironies, he would become, nine years later, the first person to nominate Einstein for the Nobel Prize.

at the Swiss patent house

So it was that Albert Einstein would end up spending the most creative seven years of his life even after he had written the papers that reoriented physics arriving at work at 8 a.m., six days a week, and examining patent applications.

questioning everything

his boss Haller had a credo that was as useful for a creative and rebellious theorist as it was for a patent examiner: “You have to remain critically vigilant.” Question every premise, challenge conventional wisdom, and never accept the truth of something merely because everyone else views it as obvious. Resist being credulous. “When you pick up an application,” Haller instructed, “think that everything the inventor says is wrong.”

on being an academician

“An academic career in which a person is forced to produce scientific writings in great amounts creates a danger of intellectual superficiality,”

philosophy of science

But mostly the three academicians read books that explored the intersection of science and philosophy: David Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature, Ernst Mach’s Analysis of the Sensations and Mechanics and Its Development, Baruch Spinoza’s Ethics, and Henri Poincaré’s Science and Hypothesis. It was from reading these authors that the young patent examiner began to develop his own philosophy of science.


“A new idea comes suddenly and in a rather intuitive way,” Einstein once said. “But,” he hastened to add, “intuition is nothing but the outcome of earlier intellectual experience.”

personality cults

The cult of individual personalities is always, in my view, unjustified … It strikes me as unfair, and even in bad taste, to select a few for boundless admiration, attributing superhuman powers of mind and character to them. This has been my fate, and the contrast between the popular estimate of my achievements and the reality is simply grotesque.

history and scientists

Among those forced to flee were fourteen Nobel laureates and twenty-six of the sixty professors of theoretical physics in the country. Fittingly, such refugees from fascism who left Germany or the other countries it came to dominate—Einstein, Edward Teller, Victor Weisskopf, Hans Bethe, Lise Meitner, Niels Bohr, Enrico Fermi, Otto Stern, Eugene Wigner, Leó Szilárd, and others helped to assure that the Allies rather than the Nazis first developed the atom bomb.

arriving in America

Einstein particularly liked the fact that America, despite its inequalities of wealth and racial injustices, was more of a meritocracy than Europe. “What makes the new arrival devoted to this country is the democratic trait among the people,” he marveled.”No one humbles himself before another person or class.”

small chance

When a colleague asked him one day why he was spending perhaps squandering his time in this lonely endeavor, he replied that even if the chance of finding a unified theory was small, the attempt was worthy. He had already made his name, he noted. His position was secure, and he could afford to take the risk and expend the time. A younger theorist, however, could not take such a risk, for he might thus sacrifice a promising career. So, Einstein said, it was his duty to do it.

##Activism and Politics


“We scientists in particular must foster internationalism,” he said. “Unfortunately, we have had to suffer serious disappointments even among scientists in this regard.” He was especially appalled by the lockstep pro-war mentality of his three closest colleagues, the scientists who had lured him to Berlin: Fritz Haber, Walther Nernst, and Max Planck.


“Socialism to him reflects the ethical desire to remove the appalling chasm between the classes and to produce a more just economic system,” his stepson-in-law wrote of Einstein’s attitudes during the 1920s. “And yet he cannot accept a socialist program. He appreciates the adventure of solitude and the happiness of freedom too much to welcome a system that threatens completely to eliminate the individual.”

on old age

“Anything truly novel is invented only during one’s youth,” Einstein lamented to a friend after finishing his work on general relativity and cosmology. “Later one becomes more experienced, more famous and more blockheaded.” … after that, as we shall see, he would begin to seem, if not blockheaded, at least a bit stubborn as he resisted quantum mechanics and embarked on a long, lonely, and unsuccessful effort to devise a unified theory that would subsume it into a more deterministic framework.


Einstein’s sympathies extended to the Arabs who were being displaced by the influx of Jews into what would eventually be Israel. His message was a prophetic one. “Should we be unable to find a way to honest cooperation and honest pacts with the Arabs,” he wrote Weizmann in 1929, “then we have learned absolutely nothing during our 2,000 years of suffering.”

cosmic perspective

The problems of the world were important to Einstein, but the problems of the cosmos helped him to keep earthly matters in perspective. Even though he was producing little of scientific significance, physics rather than politics would remain his defining endeavor until the day he died.

The most humbling point for me was the fact how Einstein kept a child-like wonder and curiosity towards everything around him.

The explanation that Einstein himself most often gave for his mental accomplishments was his curiosity. As he put it near the end of his life, “I have no special talents, I am only passionately curious.”

I looking to read about lives of other inventors and the likes…

What other authored biographies of scientists or engineers would you recommend?