Albert Einstein’s brilliance failed him only in family matters, writes
ON the day Albert Einstein died in 1955, his body was cremated and his ashes were scattered into the Delaware River. Not all of the old boy went into the drink, though. The doctor who conducted the autopsy had removed the brain and, without permission, embalmed it.
He moved around the country quite a bit during the next few years with the sacred relic, deposited in a glass jar, sloshing around in a cooler, one imagines, like a picnic lunch.
Occasionally, he’d slice a bit off and send it away for scientific scrutiny. The results were inconclusive. Was the higher than usual ratio of glial cells to neurons in the parietal cortex the cause of greater intelligence or simply the effect of using the brain in a particular way for many years?
But, as Walter Isaacson remarks in this absorbing new biography, poking around the glia isn’t going to help us understand Einstein’s imagination and intuition: ‘‘ The relevant question was how his mind worked, not his brain.’’
For example, how good was he at mathematics? Better than most of us — there are onearmed people who can only count on their fingers with better maths than me — but compared with real mathematicians?
He was never going to be one, though he wasn’t at all bad and he did not, as legend has it, flunk maths at high school.
But the legend has something going for it, because it captures an essential truth: as Isaacson
reveals, the theories that secured Einstein’s fame arose in a mental context that was visual and concrete rather than mathematical and abstract. We owe special relativity not just to his huge knowledge of theoretical physics but also to his ability to visualise thought experiments ( these, very important to Einstein, were, as Isaacson puts it, ‘‘ performed in his head rather than in a lab’’) and his grounding in empiricist philosophy, which taught him to be sceptical about things that could not be observed.
Then there was his upbringing — the family business was electronics — and his time in Switzerland working ‘‘ in a patent office that was being flooded with applications for new methods of co- ordinating clocks’’.
Isaacson takes his readers through the complexities of special relativity with admirable lucidity. But this is a personal biography, too, the first to make use of all the Einstein papers, some of which did not become available until last year. So, as well as the science, we get the domestic life of the scientist.
This was not happy: ultimately, the great man cared more about physics than about family and, despite his later image as a shaggy- haired, cuddly, avuncular figure, he could be an aloof father. In letters to his wife, Mileva, he referred to special relativity as ‘‘ our theory’’, but, though scientifically qualified, she seems to have been a sounding board rather than a creative partner. Before long, she wasn’t any sort of partner at all. In 1914, Einstein sent her an unbelievably heartless ultimatum ( all sections and numbered sub- sections) in which he told her in effect that intimacy was over between them but that she could still look after his meals and his laundry.
By then, he was busy with general relativity, incorporating gravity into the geometry of spacetime. This took a lot of maths — ‘‘ I have gained enormous respect for mathematics’’, Einstein wrote — and it produced results that seemed impossibly paradoxical to the mathematically illiterate. It seemed space was limited and curved, but what, people wanted to know, was it limited and curved in?
This became an issue soon after World War I. Since the 1840s, observers had noted tiny shifts in the orbit of the planet Mercury not predicted by Newton’s theories. Einstein hoped that general relativity would do the job better. It did: in Brazil and off the coast of Africa, astronomical observations made during an eclipse bore out his predictions. Relativity hit the headlines.
The publicity was enormous, though not always well- informed ( The New York Times , lacking a science correspondent, assigned the story to its golfing expert), and Einstein was now a celebrity. He claimed to hate it but, as Isaacson observes, people who really dislike the spotlight don’t turn up with Charlie Chaplin on the red carpet at a movie premiere.
The bad news about the publicity was that it fostered ignorance. There arose a sense that intellectual moorings were adrift and that relativity underwrote a new relativism in morality, art and politics. Not only was this not true in these areas; for Einstein it wasn’t true in science, either. He spent the rest of his life in futile struggle against the new physics he had helped inaugurate, with its quantum leaps, its uncertainty principle and its apparent undermining of objective reality.
To Isaacson’s credit, he makes this half of Einstein’s life as gripping as the first. These are the years not just of a quest for a unified field theory, but of Einstein the Zionist ( the Nazis found something typically Jewish in the abstractions of relativity), Einstein the world citizen and Einstein the man who, in the face of the Nazi threat, reluctantly persuaded his adopted country to work on the atom bomb. This is a wonderful account not just of the science but of the personality of a man who, though not always as nice as he sometimes seemed to be, led a life governed by imagination, intuition and curiosity.
Space bender: Clockwise from main, Albert Einstein explaining his theories; with first wife Mileva Maric; and alleged lover Margarita Konenkova