The Man Who Read God's Mind

Was there really a time when reporters besieged a celebrity's home, forced him to go into hiding to escape their hounding, filled newspapers with leaks and speculations—and the celebrity was not a politician, not a movie star, but a theoretical physicist? And the leaks and speculation centered not on political scandal or illicit affairs but progress toward the unification of the theories of two physical forces, electromagnetism and gravitation?

There was, but only because there was Albert Einstein. Like no scientist before or since—arguably, like no scholar in any field—Einstein won popular adulation for intellectual firepower and breakthroughs in fields that few people had even heard of, much less understood. A quartet of papers in the "miracle year" of 1905 proposed the special theory of relativity, provided proof of the existence of atoms, put quantum mechanics on a solid empirical foundation and unveiled what would become the most famous equation in science, E = mc2, any one of which would have secured his reputation in the physics pantheon. Crowds in the thousands greeted him on his tours across America. Israel's leaders bowed to public pressure to offer him the presidency of their young country in 1952, even as the leaders of his adopted one viewed him with suspicion: Einstein's FBI dossier grew to 1,427 pages and, denied a security clearance, he was not permitted to know about the work of the Manhattan Project even though his letter to President Roosevelt had helped launch it.

No wonder, then, that entire volumes have been devoted to each and every sliver of Einstein's work and life, down to a search for his illegitimate daughter (her fate remains lost to history). The excellent "Einstein Files" by journalist Fred Jerome exposed the McCarthy-era efforts to tar him as a communist (he was not, and in fact had been critical of Soviet Russia since at least 1932 and made a point never to visit, though he was so profligate in lending his name to causes that some turned out to be communist fronts), while scholars, relatives, colleagues and Einstein himself wrote full biographies. Even his affair with a Russian spy in the early 1940s has been chronicled. Walter Isaacson, who was managing editor of Time when the magazine named Einstein its "person of the century" in 2000 and is now president of the Aspen Institute, has devoured it all.

The delightful result, "Einstein: His Life and Universe," is not just a repackaging of the best of the best, however. The most comprehensive English-language biography of Einstein for a general readership, it also reflects letters and other papers from the Einstein archives at Hebrew University in Jerusalem which were released last July. (Historians are up to volume 10 of a projected 30.) The new bits include no bombshells, though the letters from the wife he was divorcing and from his alternately angry and plaintive sons, whom he essentially abandoned when he separated from their mother, humanize this icon even further, revealing the pain Einstein felt when his older boy rejected him. Isaacson weaves it all into a seamless narrative of the man he calls "a loner with an intimate bond to humanity, a rebel who was suffused with reverence ... an imaginative, impertinent patent clerk [who] became a mind reader of the creator of the cosmos."

Einstein is an irresistible biographical subject because his achievements were an outgrowth of his personality, "as if part of some unified field," as Isaacson rightly puts it. A revolutionary and nonconformist, Einstein boycotted classes of professors he found tedious and rejected the standard, experimental approach to physics in favor of thought experiments, the most notable of which—asking what light would look like if you rode beside a beam—led to the special theory of relativity. That overthrew the Newtonian dogma that space and time are absolute and fixed entities. Instead, he showed mathematically that what you observe depends on where you stand in space and time, with the result that to a stationary observer a clock moving at high velocity slows down and lengths shrink.

Isaacson brings out something that scholars have only recently grasped, and which most textbooks get wrong: Einstein did not discover special relativity because of the Michelson-Morley experiment. This 1887 study failed to detect the ether, which was thought to fill all of space and act as an absolute frame of reference. Instead, Einstein started with elegant principles and an intuitive sense of physics, and reasoned his way to his discovery. To the public, it underlined Einstein's genius, that he could sit in his study (or at his desk at the Swiss patent office) with only a notebook and pen, and, through pure thought, discern the mysteries of the cosmos. To the stuffy old men of European science, it seemed more like philosophy than physics or, what would soon be worse, "Jewish science."

Much has been made of Einstein's having to work as a patent clerk when he could not win an academic post. But Isaacson argues convincingly that, as an academic, Einstein might never have been, well, Einstein. Instead, he would have felt pressure to conform to the prevailing dogma, "compelled to churn out safe publications and be overly cautious in challenging accepted notions."

"Accepted notions" were under siege throughout European science in the late 19th century. Other physicists questioned the idea of absolute motion, absolute space and absolute time. Others, notably the German theoretical physicist Max Planck, fired the first shots in what would be the quantum revolution. Yet it was Einstein who forged the former into special relativity, and took quanta more seriously than Planck, who viewed the quantum as a mathematical construct and not a real physical entity. Why did Einstein take leaps that other greats shied away from? The sassy boy who refused to attend boring classes had become an audacious man, a rebel willing to cast off Newtonian principles of space and time rather than preserve the old, as Planck did. Einstein, Isaacson writes, was not "confined by dogma based on authority ... [He alone] was rebellious enough to throw out conventional thinking that had defined science for centuries."

The apartness and antipathy to dogma carried into his personal and political life. Einstein's relations with his first wife, Mileva, degenerated so badly that in 1914 he demanded she sign a contract promising to deliver three meals to his room daily, renounce "all personal relations with me insofar as they are not completely necessary for social reasons" and "stop talking to me if I request it." In politics, he abhorred nationalism and was a committed pacifist during the first world war, but as the evils of Nazism became clear he embraced the Allied cause.

Ironically, for the last three decades of his life, Einstein played the role of defender of the old order, rejecting the audacious implications of quantum theory. "Relativity may have seemed like a radical idea, but at least it preserved rigid cause-and-effect rules," Isaacson writes. "Quanta, however, mess[ed] with this causality." Einstein never accepted that how one particle affected another was probabilistic, not certain and deterministic. It is poignant to read his prediction, in 1929, that quantum physicists would reach "the limit of their mania for the statistical fad, [and] return full of repentance to the space time picture." It has yet to happen.

During his 22 years in the United States, Einstein tried desperately to devise a theory that would unite gravity and electromagnetism, the only natural forces known in his day. He never succeeded, despite the leaks the newspapers ate up. He also threw himself into social and political causes, from civil rights to a supranational government that would "have a monopoly on military power," especially atomic weapons. Both quests, in physics and in politics, "reflected his instincts for transcendent order," Isaacson writes. "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."

In 1929 a rabbi sent Einstein a telegram. "Do you believe in God? Stop. Answer paid. 50 words." Einstein invoked the deity at the drop of a hat, declaring that the Lord might be "subtle but not malicious" and that he "does not play dice" (arguing against the probabilistic laws of quantum mechanics). Raised a Jew, a faith he alternately rejected and embraced and rejected again when he settled on agnosticism, Einstein answered the rabbi by declaring his belief "in Spinoza's God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists, but not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind."

One hesitates to complain that a book of 551 pages, plus 89 more of sources and notes, skimps on anything. But it would have benefited from a more in-depth treatment of Einstein's objections to quantum theory. In particular, his commitment to the idea that there exists an objective physical reality independent of observers, and that physics is about what really exists in nature rather than, as quantum mechanics insists, what we can perceive of nature. This debate still rages. Coincidentally, Spinoza—the 17th-century Dutch moral philosopher who was Einstein's touchstone on God—also championed realism. The book could also have used a little more analysis—a little more Isaacson—to break up the brisk march through Einstein's actions and accomplishments.

Not since Einstein has a scientist engaged so passionately with the world and left a humanitarian legacy to rival his scientific one. Too many scientists today disparage political and social involvement of the kind Einstein practiced, even blackballing those (such as the late astronomer Carl Sagan) with the temerity to undertake it. We are all the worse for it.