Monday, September 17, 2007

Einstein Biography

I recently finished reading the Albert Einstein biography by Walter Isaacson.

I really enjoyed this book and learned a ton about the most famous physicist of our time.

His character, personal life, politics, and religious thoughts were fascinating to read. The physics was interesting too but was difficult to follow at times. At around 600 pages though this book might not be for everyone.

To give you a taste, here are a few interesting things that I learned:

  • As a patent clerk in 1905 he published four papers that revolutionized physics. These included descriptions of special relativity and the equation E=mc^2. It was not until a four years later that he finally got his first job in academia as a junior professor at the University of Zurich.
  • He did not believe that man was naturally monogamous. He made this known and acted accordingly. He had many relationships while single and while married.
  • Einstein was a workaholic who struggled maintaining close personal relationships.
  • He had a daughter he never met.
  • His son Eduard suffered from schizophrenia and was institutionalized several times.
  • Einstein was an outspoken pacifist for most of his life (until WWII). He believed that the way to prevent war was to have a single world government. It would arbitrate disputes and enforce its decisions through a monopoly on military power.
  • He was a determinist. He believed that the actions of all objects are determined only by the laws of nature. If we could understand these laws and could know the current state of all objects then we could exactly predict the past and future states of all objects. This includes the actions of human beings! He believed that human beings have as much free will to determine their own actions as a star sitting in the sky does.
  • In 1938 Freshman at Princeton University, where Einstein was working, were given a survey which asked them to name the "greatest living person". Einstein (a Jew) ranked second behind Adolf Hitler.
  • At the urging of his colleagues Einstein wrote a letter to President Roosevelt warning that the Germans could be developing technology for a bomb of unprecedented power. This letter led to the development of the Manhattan Project, the atomic bomb, and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After the bombings Time magazine put an image of Einstein on the cover with a mushroom cloud and the equation E=mc^2. This is somewhat ironic due to Einstein's pacifist beliefs.
  • Einstein worked until the night he died. The final thing he wrote before going to sleep for the last time was a set of incomprehensible equations.
  • The pathologist who performed Einstein's autopsy was a Quaker named Thomas Harvey. Without asking for permission Thomas decided to keep Einstein's brain for himself! He embalmed it and stored it in two cookie jars. For years after he would occasionally send pieces to researchers for study.

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