In 1905 Albert Einstein, a third-class clerk in the patent office in Zurich, Switzerland, published five groundbreaking papers that he had produced in his spare time. One would win him a Nobel Prize, and another produced the most famous equation in the world: E=mc2. Almost a century later, the managing editor of Time magazine, Walter Isaacson, grew fascinated by the scientist who, in his words, “became one of the first great icons in the age of celebrity,” and one of the most revered persons in the United States as he lived out the final decades of his life in Princeton, N.J. Isaacson gained access to a cache of letters and papers hidden for decades and, before even finishing a biography that would become a huge bestseller in 2003, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, he began pouring himself into Einstein’s world, grappling with some of the most staggering theories ever proposed and a personal life messier than a novelist could imagine. In the meantime Isaacson became the chairman and CEO of CNN and now serves as the president and CEO of the Aspen Institute. His 641-page biography, Einstein: His Life and Universe, was published in April.
With more than 100 books out there on Einstein, why write about him now?
I wanted to get at the nature of genius. What makes somebody not just smart but also creative? Smart people are a dime a dozen. But the type of person who can think imaginatively, think outside of the box, but still end up being right, that person is hard to find. One of the things that I discovered about Einstein is how rebellious he was, as a kid, as a teenager, as a patent clerk. It didn’t take merely pure intelligence to come up with special relativity. You had to be a nonconformist to defy the authority that had been handed down since Newton. You had to think that maybe time is not absolute after all. All of my books have to some extent explored the mind, whether Kissinger or Franklin or Einstein. I’m interested in the relationship between intelligence, creativity and genius. People get intimidated so easily. They think, well, I can never be as smart as Einstein. But we can all be creative. We can all be imaginative. That’s what Einstein teaches us.
What do you have to say in the book that’s new?
When I became editor of Time magazine in the 1990s, and I realized we had to pick a person of the century, I became more and more interested in Einstein. I discovered there was a whole trove of his personal papers and other documents that had never been available, for a variety of reasons. So this is the first biography that’s based on these new papers and letters. They show a personal side to Einstein. I wanted to do a narrative biography that wove together his scientific thinking, his political thinking, his personal thinking, to show how his mind worked in all these realms.
Did you have special access to Einstein’s papers?
I had early access to the papers that were released in 2006. I got to work on them and talk to people about them before they were released.
Did your role as CEO at the Aspen Institute help?
We did a conference on Einstein in 2004 and were able to gather together experts from around the world. That gave me a chance to pick the brains of the best people in the field. There’s also an Aspen Center for Physics that shares the campus with us, and a wide variety of people there offered me a lot of help.
The science in this book is challenging and you take the reader right into the heart of it without the usual support of metaphor and simile. How did you decide how much science to offer up?
Understanding relativity is not easy, but understanding Macbeth isn’t easy either. And yet you don’t get intimidated by a Shakespeare play. I think we should have the same joy and excitement about wrestling with science as we do wrestling with Shakespeare. To me, the greatest pleasure of doing this book was understanding the math as well as the physics, and trying to present it in a way that is serious but not intimidating. If there’s one thing that I hope comes out of this book it’s that people can overcome being intimidated by science. It’s magical to be awed by the spirit manifest in the laws of the universe, and we can all appreciate it even if we don’t know the math. Secondly, Einstein’s great theories are very visual, because he thought visually. Whether it’s the warping of the fabric of space-time in general relativity or the bending of light, these are things we can picture in our minds just like Einstein tried to picture in his mind as a 16-year-old what it would be like to ride alongside a light beam.
We only discovered in the last decade that Einstein had a daughter who disappeared when she was about 2 years old. You disclose in the book that Einstein may never have even seen her. Why have so many facets of Einstein’s life taken so long to emerge?
People destroyed or hid some of his letters, and very few people ever knew that Einstein had an illegitimate daughter. Tracking her down has been a project of a lot of researchers, starting with Robert Schulman, the great detective of the Einstein Papers Project a decade ago. People ask me if general relativity is complex. Yes, but physics is never as complex as human emotions, like Einstein’s feelings about his two sons, or the distance he was able to put between himself and his illegitimate daughter, or the way he treated Mileva Mari´c, his first wife.
Did you detect any long-term fallout in Einstein over the fact that he had a daughter he never saw?
No, Einstein was able to wall off emotions. He was a man who had a lot of flaws, including a certain coldness toward his family and toward his personal commitments. It was surprising to me that he was able to put aside and never see his daughter, but it was even more surprising that it never seemed to affect him. He repeatedly says throughout his life that delving into science was his escape from what he called “the merely personal.” And he loved to escape.
What is a stunning example?
When he’s racing to come up with the field equations for his theory of general relativity in 1915, his marriage is falling apart, his two sons who have moved back to Zurich from Berlin are writing him agonizing letters, and yet he’s able to juggle and compartmentalize these extraordinarily emotional personal issues from his intense focus for the theory. But that doesn’t mean he was aloof. He was very passionate. He could get very hot about his relationship with his children, or his love-hate relationship with his first wife. This was not a man who felt no emotion; he could just compartmentalize very well.
Why do you spend so little space in the book on the argument that Mileva, Einstein’s first wife, helped come up with the theory of special relativity in 1905?
Actually, I hope I address it fully. We have all the letters, the notebooks and an extraordinary amount of information about how he made the leap to special relativity. As far as I can tell, she helped proofread the papers, she helped some with the math, she helped check things, and he gave her some credit for being a partner during that period. There is zero evidence that any of the basic concepts came from her.
Did Einstein’s rebellion against authority serve him well?
Yes. Rejection of arbitrary authority helps him break through conventional wisdom in science. It also makes him a person who defies authoritarian regimes, whether it’s the Nazis or the Communists or even the leaders in the McCarthy era. He believed that free minds and free spirits are the keys to creativity. He believed that whether in schools or government or in science, you have to do whatever possible to nurture free minds and free spirits. If there’s one great theme to his life, it’s the connection between freedom and creativity.
Why did you spend so much space in the book on the impact of anti-Semitism in Einstein’s life?
Einstein was a person who resisted just going along. When other Jews in Germany were trying hard to assimilate, Einstein embraced his Jewish heritage in a way he never had before. He grows up in a very secular family, doesn’t think much about being Jewish. It’s not until he sees the rise of anti-Semitism that he embraces his Jewish heritage. He likes being an outsider.
Was Einstein an American, a German or Swiss?
I think that what defined him most in terms of nationality was having been born in Germany, and being a refugee from Germany. He was, in his soul, a refugee from all forms of nationalism and authoritarianism. If I had to give a two-word description of him, I’d say German refugee. He gave up his German citizenship voluntarily when he was 17 and then had it thrust on him again when he became a member of the Prussian Academy, then tried to give it up again in 1933 to protest the Nazis.
If Einstein were born today, would he be as successful?
Einstein would not be able, today, to be such a lone wolf. It would be harder for somebody who couldn’t even get a job at a university, someone without a doctorate, who was a third-class examiner at the patent office, working alone without experimental data, thinking it all up in his mind as thought experiments, to publish what turned out to be five papers that revolutionize physics.
We have lived in Einstein’s theories of the universe for 100 years. Do you wonder how much longer that will last?
What I wonder is whether it will become even more of an Einstein universe. The most interesting thing to me is whether 100 years from now Einstein will have turned out to be correct in his instinct that there is a larger unified theory that completes his work.
Do you find it remarkable that he never gave up looking for a unified theory?
I find it astounding that on his deathbed, that last night in a hospital in Princeton, his aorta has ruptured, and he knows he is dying, he reaches over to his night table to pick up 12 pages of equations, still desperately trying to get one step closer to that final single theory of how the universe works.
Originally published in the August 2007 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.