Friday, February 1, 2008

Appreciating the Mysterious

Einstein: His Life and Universe
by Walter Isaacson

I'm grieving today. He died almost 53 years ago, but I am sad about the death of Albert Einstein. I want to go to 112 Mercer Street in Princeton, New Jersey and have a cup of tea with him. Walter Isaacson's portrayal of Einstein makes him this real to the reader. My knowledge of Einstein had previously been the few iconic images of him (photographs, statues, etc.) that most of us are exposed to along the way, plus his most famous equation. (Can I explain what the equation is? Not too well. But most of us remember hearing "E equals MCsquared" even if we do not comprehend it. I CAN now say with confidence that it is related to Einstein's theory of relativity.) From his pictures , you would think he would be kind of the mad scientist type, but Isaacson unearthed a gentle soul as well as a brilliant mind.

Walter Isaacson has done a marvelous job of making Albert Einstein into a real person and not just a public icon. He depicts a phenomenally smart person who was also humorous, passionate, and idealistic. As we tend to forget about people idolized by our culture, Einstein was also flawed. He could be terribly emotionally distant in his closest relationships, partially because he was so preoccupied with his work. Einstein traces the trajectory of Einstein's career as well as the progression of his own scientific and philosophical thought. The journey is fascinating. Much of the science is beyond what I can fully comprehend, but it is still fun to catch just a glimpse of the mysteries to which Einstein devoted his life. Besides, a little bit of increase in understanding is better than none.

Even more than the science, I loved reading about Einstein's passion for justice and love for humanity. Particularly as he got older, he devoted as much time to causes about which he cared deeply as he did to his scientific work. As a young man, he was an ardent pacifist. World War II forced him to revise those beliefs somewhat, but he was never a supporter of war as a means for nations to work out their differences. He assisted Jewish refugees during and after World War II, worked desperately for nuclear arms control, and advocated for a supranational organization to regulate the development and use of atomic weapons. He was able to do all of this without being in-your-face or holier than thou. Just an incredibly cool guy. I have a print crush. (If people can have cyber-crushes, can't I have one on someone I meet within the pages of a book?).

The chapter on "Einstein's God" is especially moving. Einstein did not believe in a personal God, but he had a lovely appreciation for the Being who created everything and gave creation such an elegance and order. The more he probed the secrets of the universe and its laws, the more his appreciation grew. In his personal credo that he wrote in 1930 he wrote that "the most beautiful emotion one can experience is the mysterious." It was this sense of awe and wonder that made him so wonderfully humble.

Some parts of this book are "work," (especially to a reader who does not come from a science background) but so very worth the effort. Einstein has increased my appreciation for the mysterious, and I would love to sit down and have a long, meandering conversation with him. I am also, however, grateful to Walter Isaacson for making the person of Albert Einstein just a touch LESS mysterious.

Here are a few fun facts about Einstein that I did not previously know:

a) He was an accomplished violinist.
b) He usually did not wear socks.
c) At one time, he was asked to serve as President of Israel. He turned it down because he believed that his non-conformist personality and bluntness made him ill-suited for the political life.

Reverent Reader


At 2/1/08, 10:11 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think I read somewhere that Einstein was ridiculed by theologians for not believing in God, and his "creation" worship was an aetheist's approach. Was there anything like that in the book? My reaction at the time was that those who dismissed him reflected the times in which he lived. Can you shed any light on the matter?

At 2/1/08, 11:46 PM , Blogger Reverent Reader said...

Jim - I think your understanding of the times is correct, as well as your interpretation of people's reactions to his beliefs. The credo that he composed in 1930 was in response to pressure from both the scientific and religious communities to clarify his understanding of God. Since he did not believe in Judeo-Christian dogma like free will and eternal life, orthodox theologians (both Christians and Jews) dismissed him as atheist. However, he insisted that he was not atheist. Something else that is interesting, even though he was a non-practicing Jew, he became more and more tied to his ethnic and cultural heritage as he lived through such a horrible time of oppression of the Jewish people. When he declined to serve as president of the nation of Israel, he said "My connection to the Jewish people is my greatest tie to humanity." His faith in God's creative power is referred to throughout the book, but the chapter entitled "Einstein's God" articulates his own religious convictions very beautifully.

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