The ambitious 675-page hard-cover biography is only the latest addition to the wellspring of literature on Albert Einstein, but it is the first major work to be written using previously unreleased personal and family letters, documents and notebooks.
Einstein's stepdaughter had the papers sealed for 20 years after her death in 1986, but Isaacson was able to obtain advance access to most of them before their release in 2006. During his tenure as managing editor of TIME magazine in 1995, he and his staff chose Einstein to be the publication's person of the century, which consequently led to Isaacson's access to the papers and the initiation of the current biography after he formed a relationship with the personnel responsible for the Einstein papers at the California Institute of Technology.
"It is so vivid," says Isaacson about the content of Einstein's personal letters. "We know what happens to him hour by hour on certain days, and that comes from having letters and diaries and documents and people writing to each other about how they spent their day." The letters consist largely of correspondence about Einstein's divorce from his first wife and problems he was having with his kids while he was creating his theory of general relativity, which Isaacson calls "the most elegant theory in the history of science."
Isaacson says that while the book is based on less than 20 percent of these letters, they fill in the gaps of what we already know about the man, who has been lionized as the world's symbol for genius, to make him more human. "It was amazing to continually realize that this was a flesh and blood guy who had a lot of passions. Who could be angry and loving and could be cold to his kids and then feel remorseful."
Aside from nitty-gritty scientific thought for hardcore science fans, clues in figuring out what made Einstein tick on a personal level is what propels his mass appeal and it's what Isaacson's book aims to accomplish more than any other previous work about him. "You think of him on a poster as the guy with the wild halo of hair and I keep thinking 'Oh, this was a guy who was trying to be a good father, who was trying to juggle his science in the middle of World War I, trying to find food because it was hard to find food in Berlin at that time.'"
The book has been widely praised for its personal touches, but some have criticized Isaacson's handling of the science. Most have said that despite Isaacson's best efforts to reel it in for the laymen, it's those points in the book that inevitably bog it down a bit, though some people concede that it simply makes them realize that they are "no Einstein."
Isaacson says that the science in the book is very accessible because of the creative way in which Einstein approached the subject. "It was easier to explain the science than I thought because Einstein does it all visually, there's not a lot of math," he says. Thought experiments, or as Isaacson puts it, "what you and I would call daydreaming when we're not Einstein," are the way in which Einstein went about developing his theories while supporting them with the appropriate math afterwards. Classic examples include the difference between what it looks like when someone is riding on a train and another person is standing on the platform when lighting strikes both ends of the train at the same time or what it would be like to ride in an elevator accelerating upward when there's no gravity. "I don't think you need any science or math background to appreciate that," Isaacson says.
Isaacson himself doesn't have a science background and he employed a number of scientists to carefully comb his narrative to ensure the accuracy of his theoretical depictions. By most accounts, his scientific depiction is solid.
Fundamentally, Isaacson argues that the science and the personal sides of Einstein's life are not separate. Consequently, his narrative is chronological, which perhaps is Isaacson's best ally in telling Einstein's life story. Off and on, it took Isaacson just over 15 years to write the book, though for part of that time he was also writing a biography of Benjamin Franklin.
Isaacson touches on many aspects of Einstein's complicated personality, like his deep belief in God. "I think people are fascinated about why he believed in God, and it's something that always fascinated people over the years." Among the many famous Einstein quotes, one of the most famous is his notion, "God does not play dice" with the universe.
Other points of conflict that Isaacson notes in Einstein's life were his flight from Nazi Germany to the United States, his involvement in the creation of the nuclear bombs and his longstanding position as a pacifist. On the personal side, there is the topic of his second marriage, which was to his first cousin Elsa.
With all of those things to work with, it is clear that the author had no shortage of interest in his subject. "Einstein's mind is a lot more interesting than anybody that I've ever written about, maybe than anybody in history," says Isaacson. "Not just his science, but his religion, his politics, his personal morality and his general kindness and geniality."
- Walter Isaacson gained access to Albert Einstein's personal letters to write the new biography Einstein: His Life and Universe