Review of “Einstein- His Life and Universe”

Review of “Einstein- His Life and Universe”

More has probably been said about Albert Einstein than any other one of his peers. This biography, written by Walter Isaacson, holds a comprehensive account of not only the scientist but also the person. I am not sure if all the facts in the book are true, but in case they are, then some of them are extremely interesting, some others very amusing, and some are really surprising.

In a nutshell, one can say that the genius of Albert Einstein lies in his unconventional thinking together with a strong imagination. He was a non-conformist, challenging the status-quo with great thought experiments that exposed the foundations of physics and pertinently questioned them. 

On a human level, he was a true pacifist with a good sense of humor. His passion for violin and music were perhaps why he aimed to find harmony in the universe through simple, elegant equations.

Below are some facts about Albert Einstein as mentioned in the book.

Personal life

    • When he was a kid, Einstein was slow in learning how to speak, to a point where his parents decided to consult a doctor.  He said things to himself repeatedly, then said them out-loud (a mild form of echolalia). He didn’t start speaking until age 4.
    • Unlike what rumors say, Einstein was actually very good in Maths. He was especially gifted in solving mathematical problems pictorially. He also tended to think in pictures rather than words. Later in his life, all his great findings are not done via maths, but via pictures and “thought experiments” (what he called (in German) Gedankenexperiment).
    • When he was young, he marveled at a needle in a compass given to him by his father. He was astounded by the fact that the needle always pointed to the same direction regardless of the position of the compass. He will hold this puzzlement (at the magnetic field in this case) with him for all the rest of his life in that he will try to explain the magnetic and quantum fields through common equations.
    • His contempt for authority led him to defy conventional wisdom. This started early at school, where he always questioned learnings communicated by his professors and was seeking better ways to conduct the experiments. He had bad relationships with his professors and this made it tough for him to get recommendations from them.
    • After graduation from the Swiss Federal Polytechnical School, he couldn’t find a job easily. He was the only graduate of Zurich who couldn’t get a job. The only opportunity he found was as 3rd-level examiner in a patent office.
    • He had rejected his Hebrew faith and German nationalism by age 16. Giving up his German citizenship, he became a stateless person for several years.
    • He had an illegitimate daughter with a fellow former student named Mileva Marić, whom Einstein later married, and who helped him check his Maths.

Scientific achievements

    • In 1905, in his spare time, he started writing some papers. This lasted 5 months. The first paper was quite revolutionary in that it implied the notion that light comes in particles and not just waves. The second had a determination of the true size of atoms and molecules (used as a third attempt to have his doctorate accepted). The third paper explained what gravity and motion are. The fourth was on the electro-magnetics of moving bodies (special theory of relativity). In his fifth paper, he showed that E=mc^2 can be derived from the special theory of relativity.
    • Through a simple thought experiment (the train thought experiment) he explained that simultaneity depends on the state of motion. From that, he concluded that time also depends on the state of motion. Hence the revolutionary statement- “Somebody traveling at the speed of light will see time slowing for him”.
    • When he published his papers, it was far too confusing for everybody. Luckily, his papers echoed well in the ears of one of the most prominent scientists of his time- Max Planck.
    • He won the Nobel prize for his work on the Photoelectric effect. Surprisingly, he didn’t get it for his theory of relativity.
  • In 1919 sir Eddington, in the middle of world war 1, engaged in a mission to test Einstein’s theory of relativity. Announcements were later made at the British royal academy and Einstein was proven right. This, suddenly, made him become the most famous person of the world.

Here are some of my favorite quotes in the book:

“He was a loner with an intimate bond to humanity, a rebel who was suffused with reverence. And thus it was that an imaginative, impertinent patent clerk became the mind reader of the creator of the cosmos, the locksmith of the mysteries of the atom and the universe.”

“Einstein’s developmental problems have probably been exaggerated, perhaps even by himself, for we have some letters from his adoring grandparents saying that he was just as clever and endearing as every grandchild is. But throughout his life, Einstein had a mild form of echolalia, causing him to repeat phrases to himself, two or three times, especially if they amused him. And he generally preferred to think in pictures, most notably in famous thought experiments, such as imagining watching lightning strikes from a moving train or experiencing gravity while inside a falling elevator. “I very rarely think in words at all,” he later told a psychologist. “A thought comes, and I may try to express it in words afterwards.”

“Two events which, viewed from a system of coordinates, are simultaneous, can no longer be looked upon as simultaneous events when envisaged from a system which is in motion relative to that system.”

  • “The value of college education is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think.”

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