Albert Einstein: wicked brilliant or deadly boring?
I’ve just finished reading Walter Isaacson’s long-awaited (it’s really long!) and much-acclaimed biography of Albert Einstein (Simon & Schuster, New York, NY).
By Jeff Bairstow
I’ve just finished reading Walter Isaacson’s long-awaited (it’s really long!) and much-acclaimed biography of Albert Einstein (Simon & Schuster, New York, NY). This book never got moving for me despite a wonderful writer who is also a truly methodical researcher and skilled biographer (Ben Franklin and Henry Kissinger are two of his previous subjects). Let me explain why this best seller didn’t make my personal top-ten list this year.
This particular biography is more than 550 pages of pretty dense text plus another hundred or so pages of meticulously detailed chapter notes and references. But, nota bene: this is a book that you should read sitting bolt upright in a firm chair with a mug of industrial-strength java at hand to keep the little grey cells ticking. Alas, the book bored me stiff, and even made my arms hurt.
Initially, I could not decide whether the problem of this hefty book was with the reader (yours truly) or the writer (Walter Isaacson). However, Isaacson has impeccable author “cred”-a real biggie in the highly competitive New York world of major books and magazine publishing. (The first hardcover printing of the book ran to 500,000 copies.) Isaacson’s research is outstanding, the editing is exemplary and, therefore, the completed subject should be utterly fascinating. It is not, in my view. Was Einstein the problem?
Eureka! That’s it! Einstein undoubtedly had an incredibly brilliant mind when it came to advanced mathematics, but, in person he was essentially a rather boring bourgeois German who probably resembled many of his stolid compatriots born before the first World War. I realize that to classify the great Nobel Prize winner as a bore may be an abject heresy in the rarefied world of atomic physics. But for all his adulation inside the scientific community and outside, Albert comes across as an A-one bore in this book. Yaaaawn?
Stubborn when he was young, Einstein became even more stubborn as he became well known in the early 1900s. Stubbornness may have worked to his advantage in his early days as he did battle with the haughty academics of the great German Universities. But as Isaacson notes, Einstein quickly traded his youthful bohemian attitudes for all the comforts of a bourgeois home. At the same time he became stubbornly wedded to the belief that field theory would eventually explain a neatly ordered universe. Alas, it was not to be, and Einstein had to be content with the absurd role of the absent-minded professor.
And, to be sure, Einstein often caught the attention of the popular press, particularly when he came to the U.S. in October of 1933 to work at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton. With his unruly shock of hair and baggy suits, Einstein carefully cultivated the aura of the absent-minded professor. Amusing once? Yes, but ten times? I don’t think so. That unruly hair covered a brain that favored order and not disorder.
At Princeton, when asked what equipment he needed, Einstein replied, “A desk or table, a chair, paper and pencils. And a large wastebasket so I can throw away all my mistakes.” And he certainly made quite a number of mistakes, both large and small. Chasing the chimera of a unified field theory was certainly a series of tilting at windmills, but there were deliberately contrived sartorial bloopers.
Albert was legendary for not wearing socks at public affairs. Einstein felt this was a mini act of rebellion. Enough already, Mr. Isaacson. This is boring stuff. To be sure, the lives of Franklin and Kissinger were far more exciting and provided much more fascinating fodder for the author’s typewriter. No, I’m afraid that Albert may have been a key figure in the pantheon of physics, but he evidently preferred the quiet life and was proud of it. In his own way, Albert was the scientific equivalent of the Little Tramp, Charlie Chaplin.
Oddly enough, Chaplin knew Einstein and invited him to the 1931 premiere of the movie City Lights in Hollywood. A photograph taken at the screening of Chaplin with Einstein and his wife, Elsa, shows Albert in elegant evening dress. The photo does not show his socks.
Well, now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to get my haircut and lose my beard. And I am too wearing matching socks! Just look at the bottom of the photo.