I had the great pleasure recently to interview Walter Isaacson, a former editor of Time, about his biography of Einstein. Isaacson previously wrote biographies of Ben Franklin and Henry Kissinger. I will follow this interview in a few weeks with a review of this excellent tome. I am still collecting my thoughts about it, which speaks volumes about the weight of the topics covered as well as how they affected me.
Isaacson even said, "I love BlogCritics," and "I'm happy to help." The downside was I was only allowed to ask five questions.
Scott: Like Benjamin Franklin, there is an enormous body of work about Albert Einstein already. What inspired you to write this book? Did you have a particular curiosity about what made him such a fascinating and iconic figure to so many people?
Walter: I became interested in Einstein when I was editor of Time, and we were choosing the Person of the Century. Some of my colleagues argued for other candidates, such as Franklin Roosevelt or Churchill or Gandhi. But to me, it seemed that the 20th century will be remembered for its breakthroughs in science and technology: splitting the atom, going into space, inventing the microchip, etc. Einstein was primarily responsible for the two great scientific pillars of our time: relativity and quantum theory.
His fingerprints are on much of the technology: lasers and photoelectric cells, atomic power and weaponry, space travel and even microchips. And he was an exemplar of a century in which refugees fled oppression to seek more freedom. His life is a testament to the connection between freedom and creativity. As I was researching him, I realized that the final and most personal batch of his private papers was scheduled to be released in 2006.
I worked with the folks at the Einstein Papers Project at Caltech. That allowed me the opportunity to write a narrative biography that seeks to weave together his scientific thinking, political ideas, personality, and private life. I attempted to show how they were all related. I was attracted to Einstein because of his creativity, which was based on a rebellious willingness to question authority and defy convention. You see that in all aspects of his life.
Scott: Do you feel that the events of WWII, especially the dropping of atomic bombs, overshadowed the scientific achievements of Einstein and his peers?
Walter: No, I think the dropping of the bomb dramatically brought into focus that e=mc2 was more than an abstraction. The Time issue after the dropping of the bomb has a painting of Einstein on the cover with that equation emblazoned on the mushroom cloud behind him. Because Einstein had signed the letter urging Franklin Roosevelt to launch a bomb project, Einstein felt responsible and worried. He dedicated the last decade of his life largely to pushing for arms control and world peace. The connection between science and politics fascinates me, and it's a theme of the book.
Scott: How do you suggest readers like me reconcile Einstein's morally questionable actions in his private life with some of his positive scientific feats? Do you think Einstein's private problems actually contributed to his successes indirectly? They say, for example, that most/many great writers have had unhappy lives — the theory being that they compensate for this by creating their own worlds. Psychologically, how would this play out for Einstein’s creation of another "universe" — literally and figuratively?
Walter: One of the things we discover, whether about Benjamin Franklin or Albert Einstein, is that they are not made of marble. They are flesh and blood. They have their flaws. Does this diminish them? Well, it makes them more human. We know people like that in our own lives, we can relate to it, and we have to factor it in — however we see fit – in assessing them.
I do not think unhappiness in his personal life contributed to Einstein's greatness. But here's a connection I see: in his politics, personal life, and science, he was always resisting constraints, averse to any bonds, defiant of convention, nonconformist, and disrespectful of authority. That's one of the themes of my book. For better or worse, you see that attitude in him when it comes to the bonds and commitments of family life.
Scott: What is the biggest misconception about Einstein, other than the myth that he failed math?
Walter: That he was an aloof loner, an image he liked to foster. The latest personal papers, along with the trove of letters in the archives, show that Einstein was passionate, made close friendships and had deeply emotional relationships, throughout his life — from his days as a student to his genial later years in Princeton. He could defy the prevailing currents, but he loved spending time with other people, be
they scientific colleagues or personal friends or acquaintances or kids.
Scott: How do you reconcile Einstein’s religious stands with his scientific discoveries? (The famous "God does not play dice with the universe" quote being the obvious example.)
Walter: Einstein saw no conflict between science and religion and wrote many essays and gave many speeches saying so. My chapter called “Einstein's God" was to me one of the most interesting sections to write. His concept of God was a reflection of the harmonies and certainties of nature's laws. That's what made him a "realist": someone convinced that an ultimate reality exists independent of our observations or abilities to observe it. And that was at the root of his discomfort with quantum mechanics.
He often said that when judging a theory he would ask himself if that's the way God would have made the universe. And when he didn't believe an experimental result, he once said: "Subtle is the Lord, but malicious he is not." (Near the end of his life, he was standing at Princeton next to a fireplace mantle where that quote of his had been carved, and he was discussing how quantum mechanics was proving more solid than he thought, and he pointed to the quote and quipped, "Well, maybe He is a bit malicious.")
When he spoke about God not playing dice, Einstein was express faith that there were harmonious laws of nature that explained everything, and God did not let things happen merely by chance. That's not how He would have made the universe.