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Episode # 099
Produced by: Doug Krisch
Original Airdate: 16 March 2021
Length: 22 minutes
Weather of the Mind #99 notes
Einstein – Biography Review 3.16.21
In this pod I aim to provide a bit of a book review for Walter Isaacson’s Einstein.
My 3rd Isaacson bio and he is a biographer that focuses on innovation. The cultural process and these transformative figures he chronicles… including Da Vinci, Ben Franklin, and Einstein.
He tells a good story and you get a sense for both the person and the cultural milieu in which they find themselves. This is all can ask for in a bio. And Isaacson succeeds in these every time. Surely there are always questions remaining, but to boil a complex and transformative life into 500 pages is actually pretty difficult. In this sense, I think Isaacson has a good sense of pacing, of density. How far to explore a point before it is time to move on.
If he has a weakness, it is the interpersonal complexity of families. For example, Einstein’s son was near suicidal and in an institution for many years, and this was hardly explored in this book. But again, a biographer has their lens which they tell the story. And in terms of a general storytelling and a sense of the time and place, Isaacson does well.
Why I encourage the reading of biographies
Biographies are inherently intimate. They provide an access to another, to this story of this fascinating character. This true story. You get to hear about what they were like as kids. And how they evolved and how they remained the same. How they thrived and where they failed. How were they among family and friends? How were they in the public space?
But there is so much more… insight into the culture of the time. Things you would never know to look for you are bound to discover.
As Isaacson says in his early pages, “his fascinating story, a testament to connection between creativity and freedom, reflects the triumphs and tumults of the modern era.”
“Imaginative noncomformity was in the air: Picasso, Joyce, Freud, Stravinsky, Shoenberg….” – Isaacson
But the biography is the canvas of someone’s life… and we all have a canvas
So without further ado, let me share some quotes from the book that elucidate a few main themes of the book. I hope that this allows a better insight into Einstein, but also I hope they entice you to pick up a biography.
Mystery (perhaps befriending the mystery)
Mom an accomplished pianist; pushed violin lessons for young Albert; he would go on to love the violin and was a part of his character throughout his life, he loved to play for others and for himself
“Whenever he felt that he had come to the end of the road or faced a difficult challenge in his work, he would take refuge in music and it solved all his difficulties.” – son, Hans Albert
Mozart his favorite
“Music, nature and god became intermingled in him in a complex of feeling, a moral unity, the trace of which never vanished.” -biographer Moszowski
Encouragement – feeding the gifts, the curiosity
Dad and his uncle were engineering minded problem solvers who did a lot of studies in electricity, the exciting new phenomena of the time. (Electricity was like the internet or the cell phone of the 1880s.
At age 5 his epiphany and no image ripples out in a biography like this one does. It would still ripple through him on his death bead 75 years later. His Dad gave him a compass. And the fact that it would respond to an invisible magnetic field just blew him away. And lit a fascinating with fields… the last 30 years of life devoted to unified field theory. That would aim to unify electrodynamic field and the gravity fields.
And a local med student. Einsteins are jewish, though not religious, but one of the customs was to have guests over for dinner once a week for shabbat. But they did it on wed or Thursday night and a med student came over for a few years. Well this med student, along with his uncle, fed albert math puzzles and basically kept on feeding him until he was through calculus at age 12.
**So here is an example of a small anecdote that had potency. A ritual where you have guests from your community over for a meal once a week. Especially a family taking in an individual. Now I might not have thought about this, if it was not for wandering through a personal story, a biography, that passes through the 1880s and 1890s …
“He was generally a loner, a tendency he claimed to cherish throughout his life, although his was a special sort of detachment that was interwoven with a relish for camaraderie and intellectual companionship.” – Isaacson
Summary of his defining character traits: Incredible ability to systematize…. Low ability empath
“For all his kindness, sociability, and love of humanity, he was nevertheless totally detached from his environment and the human beings in it.” -Max Born
“the mix of coolness and warmth produced in Einstein a wry detachment as he floated through the human aspects of the world.” – Isaacson
Rebel spirit, questioning authority as default vantage. “to punish me for my contempt of authority, fate has made me an authority myself.”
Quick trivia section… 1905 annus mirabilis, 1919 spec relativity tested and proven, 1922 nobel prize
Max planck … big dog before him… Niels Bohr, big dog after him
Faraday and Maxwell, discover electromagnetic field and discovered the parallel math…
Einstein, 40, at 1919 when fame hits. Would continue six more years of contributing to quantum theory. But after that – he stubbornly resisted quantum mechanics and embarked on long, lonely, and unsuccessful efforts to devise unified field theory.
Note he was very humble:
“The cult of the 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.” -Einstein
“To me the most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He who this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle.” – Einstein
“try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernable laws and connections there remains something subtle, intangible, and inexplicable” -Einstein
“to sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly…” -Einstein