I’ve decided that reading biographies is the best way to learn history. It’s also the best way to make up for the fact that you only have one life to live. I recently read Einstein: His Life and Universe, by Walter Isaacson. Here are my thoughts — more on the man than on the book.
Einstein really was head and shoulders above most other physicists. Most are specialists within a particular subfield, with the really good ones venturing into other subfields every now and then. Einstein dominated them all.
He essentially proved the existence of atoms with his paper on Brownian motion. He developed the statistical tools for describing the behavior of large systems of particles. With his work on the photoelectric effect, he lay the groundwork for quantum mechanics (and he was later involved in its further development). He shattered our traditional concepts of space and time with the theory of special relativity, and then he shattered them again with general relativity.
The remarkable thing is that Einstein did most of his work alone by using pure logic and performing “thought experiments” (gedanken). Or was he alone? At the patent office in Bern, where he had his “miracle year,” he had been reviewing dozens of patent applications that dealt with methods of synchronizing clocks separated by great distances with the use of light or electronic signals. Einstein himself said that he probably would not have had his breakthroughs if he hadn’t been working there; so at least his ideas were stimulated by the inventions of others, and in that sense he was not working alone.
Einstein’s life was filled with great irony and paradox. He married an older woman against his parents’ will; years later, when his son Hans Albert was going down the same path, Einstein protested just as his own parents had. He initiated a revolution in scientific thought and showed contempt for older scientists who were unwilling to accept the new understanding of nature even though the revolution was founded on their own discoveries; but then he himself was unable to accept quantum mechanics, which was founded on his own discoveries.
He was in many ways despicable. He essentially abandoned his first daughter and covered up her existence. The way he treated his wives was abominable. As I read about his family life, I found myself reviling him. But he became quite endearing after the age of about 50.
Among physicists, perhaps only Newton rivals Einstein.* Most people know of Newton’s “three laws.” But they probably don’t know that Newton discovered many other laws as well. Like Einstein, Newton had an unimaginably intense desire to understand in a systematic way how the world around him worked. It’s that drive, I think, that has been behind every major revolution in human history, for better or for worse.
* Gleick, James. Isaac Newton.