Einstein – Walter Isaacson [Book Summary]

by Nick

For the whole world, Einstein personifies intelligence and greatness.

How did this amazing mind form?

You will make a fascinating journey into the world of Albert Einstein – from the moment when he was an outcast in early childhood in Germany, and until his last days in the USA. This is a summary of how a person from a poor family became the most famous thinker of the twentieth century.

“Madmen are those who are not involved in quantum theory.” Albert Einstein

In the following insights from Walter‘s book you will find out:

  • how Einstein changed our view of space and time;
  • why Einstein did not like quantum physics;
  • why he refused to become president of Israel.

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Insight #1. Early Development, Estrangement From Other Children and the Cult of Knowledge in the Family Formed the Character of a Great Scientist.

Einstein was born in a family where knowledge has always been the main value. When he was four years old, he fell ill, and his father gave him a compass to play while lying in bed. The compass greatly interested the boy. He was so carried away by him that the temperature subsided by itself. Einstein later recalled that it was then that he first experienced the miracle of the scientific discovery that would accompany him throughout his life.

Around the same time, his mother began to take him to violin lessons. Since then, Einstein has not parted with the instrument. Even as a serious scientist, he will not give up playing music, and he will solve the most difficult tasks by accompanying himself on the violin.

Another important event in the life of a great scientist was communication with a family friend, Max Talmud. He first “introduced little Einstein into the world of physics and philosophy”, introducing him to the work of physicist Aaron Bernstein and philosopher Immanuel Kant, as well as geometry.

The boy’s unusual mental development also played a key role in shaping Einstein’s personality: he learned to speak very late and for a long time before uttering the sentence out loud, he spoke to himself several times. And yet, by the age of 12, he was able to master applied arithmetic, and at 13 he already read Kant.

Einstein later said that these disturbances in the development of speech influenced his attitude to such ordinary phenomena as time and space, in a childlike way, like a miracle, while adults take them for granted.

Einstein was from a Jewish family and therefore felt like an outcast in Germany. Although his teachers were quite liberal, he was constantly attacked by children. This has led to special alienation and independence. He was formed as a person opposing the general mass of people and not recognizing any authority.

Despite the prevailing stereotype, Einstein studied well at school. But he was annoyed by the system of empty mechanical memorization and strict discipline in the German school system. He opposed this system so violently that one day he was simply kicked out of school. Under such conditions, his persistent contempt for power and the rejection of any authority formed.

“Confident of himself, in a gray felt hat, pushed back on his lush black hair, he energetically paced back and forth, very quickly, at a crazy pace that imposed on him by the restless spirit, containing the whole world. Nothing escaped the quick glance of his large, bright brown eyes. Everyone who approached him was fascinated by the scale of his personality. ” Hans Bieland, Einstein’s classmate.

Insight #2. Although Einstein Had a Complex Character and Was a Loner by Nature, People Adored Him.

Such an unusual childhood influenced the formation of Einstein’s brilliant, but very complex personality. For him, work was always in the first place, even to the detriment of personal happiness.

None of his two marriages were perfect. He loved his first wife, Mileva Marich, very much, but their relationship quickly broke up. In many ways, the reason was Einstein’s brutality. It was not created for family life. Once he wrote that his wife’s jealousy was pathological, which is characteristic of a woman of such a “terrible appearance” (Mileva limped from childhood).

In the end, he left Mileva and married his cousin Elsa. This marriage lasted a long time, but their relationship can hardly be called exemplary. Elsa was completely absorbed by her husband, but Einstein constantly started novels on the side.

Einstein also had a difficult relationship with children.

From Mileva, he had two sons – Hans Albert and Edward. Edward spent most of his adult life in a mental hospital. Einstein was having a hard time breaking up with them after the divorce, but he managed to drown the pain out of his work.

Alienation he showed only in relation to relatives. In general, Einstein was a very kind and sociable person. All students at Princeton University, where he worked in the last years of his life, remember him with great love.

There are cases when he helped children do their homework in mathematics. Eight-year-old Adelaide Delon managed to persuade Einstein to help her with the lessons in exchange for a homemade cream fudge. He explained math to her, and then, following her example, forced him to solve the problem on his own by promising cookies.

Einstein acutely felt loneliness, although he had many friends. People were drawn to him, and he became one of the most adored famous people of his time.

“It was known that leaving the guests, he left clothes there, and sometimes even lost his suitcase when traveling. The hostess of the guesthouse constantly made fun of his ability to forget keys. Once he was visiting with family friends and, as he later recalled, “left, forgetting his suitcase. The owner then told my parents: “This guy will never achieve anything because he can’t remember anything.” Walter Isaacson.

Insight #3. 1905 Was a Turning Point in the History of Science: Einstein Managed to Turn the Foundations of Classical Physics.

In the life of Einstein the physicist there were two truly revolutionary periods in which he created the main theories of his life. The first occurred in 1905, the second happened ten years later. Einstein spent the rest of his life in futile attempts to combine the two theories into one.

Let us return to 1905. Working in the patent office in Bern, where he spent seven years, not even rising to the rank of assistant doctor of science, Einstein wrote four articles that revolutionized physics.

The first article claimed that light is not of a wave nature, but is a stream of small particles called quanta (later they will be called photons). Einstein built his theory on the research of Max Planck, a scientist who was able to prove that the radiation of light by matter occurs discretely, in separate portions, and the energy of the emitted portion depends on the frequency of light. However, Planck did not understand that this discovery undermines the foundations of classical Newtonian physics.

Another impetus for the creation of Einstein’s quantum theory was the discovery by the physicist Philip Lenard of the direct dependence of the amount of emission of emitted electrons on the frequency of light.

Linking the theory of Planck and Lenard, Einstein put forward the idea of ​​the nature of light. It used to be that light is a continuous wave, and Einstein was able to prove that light is a stream of energy consisting of individual particles. This idea led to the discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect, according to which the energy of the emitted electrons depends on the frequency of light.

For the theory of the photoelectric effect, Einstein received the Nobel Prize. Surprisingly, for the theory of relativity, he was not even nominated for a prize. But this was due to political reasons.

Einstein’s second and third articles dealt with the behavior of atoms and molecules in liquids. These discoveries have received the widest practical application in various fields: from mixing cement to the production of dairy products.

And what about the fourth article? It was the famous Special Theory of Relativity.

Insight #4. Time, Space and Distance Are Relative. There is Nothing Faster Than the Speed of Light.

Einstein published the theory of relativity at the beginning of the 20th century and eliminated almost all inconsistencies in the physics of that time. He radically changed the idea of ​​the structure of space and time. Moreover, the theory of relativity has become a kind of “mother” for modern physics.

In 1905, Einstein turned 26 years old and he published a special, or private, theory of relativity. It includes two parts.

First part. The laws of physics are exactly the same at any inertial reference point. Such a reference point for us is either moving at a constant speed or is at rest.

Imagine that you and your friends went out of town by car. You went to the track and drive at a constant speed. At this time, inside the car, you can behave in exactly the same way as at home. The laws of physics are no different. All this will last until the moment you have to brake sharply.

Imagine a different situation. On a beautiful spring day, you walked around the park and decided to sit on a bench. At this moment, nothing bothers you and you feel at rest. Only you forget that the bench is on the ground, and the Earth moves around the Sun at a speed of 108,000 km / h.

From the point of view of physics, there is no way to determine what is actually moving. In other words, the movement is relative!

The second part of the special theory of relativity. The speed of light is constant and does not depend on the speed of movement of its sources.

The speed of light in a vacuum is 300,000 km / s, and this value is constant. Imagine the situation: you have a flashlight, and you can turn it on at home, in the car or on the plane. In all cases, the speed of light will be unchanged – 300,000 km / s, and no additional speed is added to it.

The special theory of relativity considers only a special case when the movement is rectilinear and uniform and is part of the General theory of relativity.

“Why did I create the theory of relativity? When I ask myself such a question, it seems to me that the reason is as follows. A normal adult does not think about the problem of space and time at all. In his opinion, he already thought about this problem in childhood. I developed intellectually so slowly that space and time occupied my thoughts when I became an adult. Naturally, I could penetrate deeper into the problem than a child with normal inclinations. ” Albert Einstein

Insight #5. Einstein Created the General Theory of Relativity, Drawing on His Earlier Work.

Einstein later expanded the Special Theory of Relativity to the General Theory of Relativity. With its help, he described accelerating objects and explained the origin of gravity.

In 1907, Einstein was visited by an insight: he suddenly realized that when we fall we do not feel our own weight. Therefore, to determine whether the movement occurred due to gravity or acceleration, it is impossible to even experimentally.

For example, you lost consciousness and woke up in an elevator. Moreover, you are in a state of weightlessness. This can happen for two reasons: either you move uniformly in space, or fall in the elevator with acceleration. You cannot distinguish between these two situations unless your lookout.

Perhaps Einstein was also thinking about a similar elevator, and he had a bold idea. If these two situations cannot be distinguished – it means a fall under the influence of gravity – this is uniform motion.

But how can this be?

After all, we all see perfectly that when bodies fall, they accelerate.

The answer goes beyond our perception. We are all used to the fact that the world around us has 3 dimensions: up-down, left-right, forward-backward. But, as it turned out, there is a fourth dimension – time. And it is also relative.

Space and time are a manifestation of the same single entity, that is, a four-dimensional dimension. But we are not able to see it and therefore perceive only its projections: either space or time.

In four-dimensional space, the body moves uniformly. Massive bodies bend this movement and make it curved. We see a distorted picture, and it seems to us that when the bodies fall, they accelerate. But in fact, they move directly, simply along curved paths. It is worth remembering that in this case, all four dimensions change, including time.

On Earth, time goes faster than in orbit. Therefore, satellites constantly synchronize time with the Earth in order to avoid navigation errors. Without the theory of relativity, the difference in measurements would be several kilometers.

The same goes for speed. The closer to the speed of light, the slower the time goes. In other words, for a person traveling at an incredibly high speed, time moves slower than for a person who stands still.

Einstein always sought to generalize any theories, and not create new ones for each specific case. He also did not like things that could not be proved.

“There are only two endless things: the universe and stupidity. Although I’m not sure about the universe. ” Albert Einstein

Insight #6. The Advent of Quantum Mechanics Made Einstein a Conservative.

Having formulated the equation of the theory of relativity, Einstein laid the foundation for studying the nature of the universe. His cosmological theory of 1917 claimed that gravity has the ability to bend outer space so much that it simply closes on itself, becoming limitless. In other words, the Universe in which we live is finite, but at the same time, it has no boundaries.

This revolutionary conclusion of Einstein nevertheless contained one problem: it followed from the theory that the existence of a static Universe is simply impossible since gravity would force the matter to gather in one place. Consequently, the Universe could be either expanding or contracting, but not static. But this contradicted the notions of the Universe that existed at that time.

Today we know that the universe is constantly expanding. But Einstein did not know this. And in order to bring his theory into line with the concept of a static universe, without proof, he went to his “biggest deception” – he introduced into the equation a repulsive force that would balance gravity and prevent the universe from exploding. He called this constant “cosmological constant.”

But cosmological constants were not the only consequence of the revolutionary theory of relativity. Einstein planned to develop a theory in order to confirm his long-held conjecture: gravitational and electromagnetic fields are different manifestations of the same single field.

At that time, this idea was not very popular, in large part because quantum mechanics dominated science. “And in the quantum world, the laws of nature are governed by probabilities and uncertainties.” In other words, from the point of view of quantum mechanics, “reality” does not exist. And it does not depend on whether we can observe it or not.

Einstein considered this discovery “creepy” because he adhered to the belief in strict predestination and causal relationships in nature. Thus, he fought against quantum mechanics and the randomness of natural laws.

Although Einstein expressed revolutionary views at the beginning of his scientific career, since 1923 he has become quite conservative. In the last thirty years of his life, he tried to reconcile the contradictions of quantum mechanics with his views, trying to create a new unified theory. But his attempts were unsuccessful.

“Einstein remained completely calm and said:“ I knew that the theory was correct. ” He was asked: “Well, what if experiments showed that the theory is wrong?” He replied: “Then I would be sorry for the Lord God because the theory is true.” Walter Isaacson

Insight #7. A Skeptical Attitude to the Authorities Did Not Allow Einstein to Join Political Parties but Did Not Prevent Him From Expressing His Opinion.

Einstein was never afraid to express his opinion on any issue, whether it be science, politics or religion. Over the years, he began to speak more and more on political issues, especially after he fled from Europe to the United States due to the growth of anti-Semitism on the eve of World War II.

Einstein felt a close connection with the Jewish people, but he did not share the traditional Jewish beliefs, primarily the concept of free will. Einstein was a determinist all his life, that is, he shared the doctrine of the predetermination of human life, while Judaism teaches that man himself is the creator of his destiny.

Einstein’s idea of ​​God was close to the ideas of the philosopher Spinoza: he did not believe that God intervened in human life and interacted with them. Rather, he perceived God as powerful and incomprehensible laws of nature.

Feeling a powerful connection with the people, during World War II Einstein spoke out against agitational anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany, published letters and petitions. In 1952, in recognition, he received an offer from Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion to become the second president of Israel. Einstein refused, realizing that his brilliant abilities were by no means in the sphere of diplomacy and state activity.

He was too skeptical of the authorities to join any movements or organizations but shared socialist views. He attached paramount importance to individual freedom and opposed the totalitarian ideologies of communism and fascism.

Therefore, when the “witch hunt” began in the United States in the 1940-1950s, anti-communist sentiment intensified and political repressions against the “anti-American” began, Einstein remained neutral. He did not support either the anti-American or anti-Soviet side. However, the FBI has accumulated 1427 pages of Einstein’s dossier in fourteen folders containing information about the scientist. But there was not a single evidence against him!

“Fate, punishing me for contempt for authorities, made me an authority.” Albert Einstein

Insight #8. Even in the Last Days of His Life, Einstein Remained Curious and Rebellious.

Einstein suffered from stomach ailments all his life. In 1955, he died of an abdominal aortic aneurysm. But even being sick, in the last months of his life he did not stop working and conducting research. At 76, he remained the same tenacity and curiosity as in childhood.

Surprisingly, the last week of his life was very productive. Together with the philosopher Bertrand Russell, he composed and signed a manifesto condemning the next world war. He delivered a radio message expressing concern over the escalation of the Arab-Israeli conflict in Israel. And, of course, he was still busy trying to create his own unified cosmological theory. After the scientist’s death, twelve pages of equations created literally on his deathbed were found in his bed.

The funeral was modest. At his own request, the body was cremated, and the dust was scattered over the Delaware River.

But to avoid the scandal associated with his death, he still failed. The Einstein family was horrified to find that the pathologist who performed the autopsy embalmed Einstein’s brain, divided it into parts, and sent the pictures to various researchers around the world.

In the course of the research, experts noticed some disturbances in the brain structure of the great scientist: for example, Einstein’s brain had a shorter groove in the region of the lower parietal lobe – the region that is responsible for mathematical and spatial thinking. In addition, in the parietal lobe of Einstein, there were more glial cells than neurons.


But, whatever his brain was, Einstein himself was sure that the main explanation for his genius was ardent curiosity. Throughout his life, he did not lose the ability to be surprised at nature, while maintaining modesty and self-confidence.

“The greater my fame, the duller I am; and such, of course, is the general rule. ” Albert Einstein

Einstein was a brilliant scientist and a bright personality. His outstanding scientific discoveries were the result of a synthesis of a genius mind and a unique nature combining curiosity, rebellion, and modesty.

Why You Should Read “Einstein”

  • To explore the whole life of a legendary scientist
  • To learn what exactly made Albert so intelligent
  • To find out what forces drove Einstein to his greatness

This book is available as:

AudiobookeBook | Print