This is an excellent, well balanced view of Albert Einstein, the man and the mathematician.
The author does not back away from trying to deal with Einstein the mathematician. He goes into the details of Einstein’s thinking to the point it seems he understood him better than the mathematicians he worked with. At times the narrative gets is little cumbersome but on the whole Isaacson gets through it and makes sense.
What was interesting to me was Einstein the man. Although he was constantly being described as warm, witty and wise, I did not see that.
Take the issue of morality. The author made repeated reference to how moral Einstein was. As an example the book states, “...he was able to develop, and to practice, a strong personal morality, at least toward humanity in general if not always toward members of his family...” (p. 393) Isn’t it always easy to love mankind but hate your neighbor. I guess that is why Jesus said to love our neighbor as ourselves. Einstein walked away from his first wife when she was having problems and began living with a woman who would eventually become his second wife. He was not recognized as being faithful to his second wife either. One son was put in a sanitarium and was never visited by his father. On the social front, during World War I when he was of military age, Einstein was a total passivist and renounced his German citizenship. When he was too old to serve and living in America he remained a passivist in principle but it was acceptable to go to war against Hitler. He declared he would have enlisted (but of course was too old at that point.)
This view of morality mystifies me, but it shouldn’t. The author has a different idea of morality than I have. I think killing unborn children is immoral but killing cows is the way we get steak. I think dumping your wife is immoral but garbage dumps makes sense. I really don’t understand the use of the word of someone who breaks all the social contracts.
Politically he was what has been called a "useful idiot." He was for individual freedom and personal choice but he was a socialist. He recognized that socialism led to tyranny and lack of freedom but he was still a socialist. He refused to travel to Russia, but he also refused to sign a statement condemning Stalin’s political murders. Part of his reasoning was “The Russians have proved that their only aim is really the improvement of the lot of the Russian people.” (p. 446)
He had typical socialist ideas about wealth. In a book Einstein wrote called Why Socialism he said this,
“A planned economy, which adjusts production to the needs of the community, would distribute the work to be done among all those able to work and would guarantee a livelihood to every man, women, and child.” (p. 504)But he was a typical western socialist. While he condemned American affluence he lived a life filled with comfort and luxuries. He owned a sailboat most of his life. In Europe he built himself a lake-front home. In American he would rent an ocean front summer home. One was on 20 acres and had a tennis court and swimming pool. This is not exactly suffering for the cause of equality.
To me the author summed up his personality, “Personally, politically, and professionally, he was repulsed by any restraints.” This may have produced genius but it also describes spoiled brats.
If you like biography, read it. If you want to learn about Einstein, read it. I feel I could have spent the time on someone who would have been a little more inspiring.
homo unius libri