Biographer Discusses Einstein’s Life, Legacy

April 26, 2007 at 6:45 PM EDT


JUDY WOODRUFF: Albert Einstein, his very name conjures up an image of the brilliant physicist, the unruly locks, E equals MC squared, the special theory of relativity, the Brownian movement of molecules, the photon theory of light.

Einstein first published these theories in 1905. He was then a 26-year-old Swiss patent examiner. Over 100 years later, and more than 50 years after his death, thousands of Einstein’s private letters and correspondence from these early years and later were unsealed and made available to scholars.

That correspondence provided the insight for a new biography of the physicist who ushered in the modern age. It is “Einstein: His Life and Universe” by Walter Isaacson. I talked with him recently at his home in Washington.

Why did you want to write about Albert Einstein?

WALTER ISAACSON, Author: Well, I love the magic and the wonders of science. And sometimes we feel alienated or intimidated by science, especially Einstein, who seems so intimidating. But the new letters show what a passionate, creative, imaginative human being he was. And I felt it could make not only science come alive, but the whole 20th century, refugees from oppression, people like Einstein who helped make it such an amazing modern era.

Einstein's imagination

JUDY WOODRUFF: And why was he the great thinker, the brilliant scientist that he was? What was it about him?

WALTER ISAACSON: Well, you know, smart people can be a dime a dozen. What it really takes is creativity and imagination. He once said that imagination is more important than knowledge.

And I think what made him stand out from other greats of his time, like Max Planck, who was a brilliant scientist, was that he could just think a little bit differently. He could see what Max Planck had figured out and say, "But maybe light is a particle," or, "Maybe time is not absolute," things nobody else would have thought of.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you write about how, in many instances, he could take a very complicated theory and boil it down to something practical, a falling man, two trains passing. Where did that come from?

WALTER ISAACSON: He was very slow in learning how to speak as a child. Those of us who are parents can take heart that he was no Einstein when he was a kid. And I think it was his slow verbal learning ability, among many other things, that caused him to be so great at thinking in pictures, of doing thought experiments, what you and I would call daydreaming if we're not Einstein.

And so what he could do is, just like Newton could look at a falling apple, Einstein could look at an elevator accelerating upward, with all the windows closed, and say it would feel just the same as gravity. Or he could think about lightning striking both ends of the train and realize that, for the person in the train, they would seem to be timed differently than the person standing on the platform. And out of that comes the theory of relativity.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And how much of that was due to the time that he lived in and the place where humankind was in its understanding of science, and the universe, and things like matter and mass and energy?

WALTER ISAACSON: Well, you know, at the beginning of the 1900s, Lord Kelvin, a British scientist, said, "Everything that's going to be discovered has been discovered. It's now just down to making better measurements."

He was totally wrong. Science was about to be revolutionized. But the two great theories that define modern science -- relatively and quantum theory -- and both of them have Albert Einstein's fingerprints back when he was just a patent clerk in the Swiss patent office in 1905.

Personality and politics

JUDY WOODRUFF: Again, on Einstein the person, he was not only this brilliant thinker, he had an engaging personality. I mean, you write about how charming he was, and you write about his disappointments and his temper at times. Talk about his personality and why that was such an important piece of his success, if you will?

WALTER ISAACSON: Well, I think his personality was very rebellious. He loved to defy authority. He gets kicked out of school by one headmaster. Another amuses us by saying he'll never amount to anything.

But it was that rebelliousness, that willingness to defy convention that allows him to be creative in his thinking. You see that in his politics. You see it in his personal life. And you certainly see it in his science.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about his politics? You talk about he was a pacifist, his role during World War I and then after.

WALTER ISAACSON: Yes, he was a pacifist during World War I, when he was a professor in Germany, which was pretty tough to be, because Germany was, you know, a very militaristic country, but his instincts were against war.

But, like any good scientist, when he gets new evidence, he revises his general theories. So when Hitler comes to power in 1933, he realizes that pacifism is not going to help stop Hitler. And so he advocates to Franklin Roosevelt that the United States try to build an atom bomb, a bomb sort of based on his theory that E equals MC squared.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So he had a role in developing the atom bomb?

WALTER ISAACSON: Yes, the letter he wrote to Roosevelt helped get the Manhattan Project started. But what's ironic is there was a big FBI file on him at this point because he had been a pacifist. So J. Edgar Hoover and others thought he might be a security risk, so he wasn't even allowed to work on the atom bomb project, even though he was the one who helped get it launched.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, later, he had very different feelings about war?

WALTER ISAACSON: Well, after the war and after the bomb was used, he realized that arms control would be a necessity. They asked him once about World War III, how would it be fought. He said "I don't know, but I know how World War IV will be fought: with sticks and rocks." So we have to control nuclear weapons. So he dedicates the latter years of his life to trying to get some form of arms control.

Einstein's later years

JUDY WOODRUFF: Something I think a lot of people may not realize about him is, so much of the great theory that came out of his head was early in his life, 1905. He was a young man when all of this happened. He continued to do great work, but never again that sort of profound production of ideas. Why?

WALTER ISAACSON: You know, when he was young, Einstein was very rebellious in his thinking. So he does special relativity, general relativity, the whole notion of the cosmos, very creative. But then, a new form of physics comes along, quantum mechanics, based largely on what Einstein had discovered in 1905, but Einstein becomes very conservative about it, because quantum mechanics has probabilities and uncertainties built into it. And he keeps saying, "I cannot believe that God would play dice with the universe."

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why did he have such a hard time with this? I mean, was it a product of age or...

WALTER ISAACSON: I think it was partly a product of age, but he was asked that question once, and he said, "The good lord punished me for my contempt for authority when I was young by making me an authority myself when I was old."

JUDY WOODRUFF: You went into this project, this book, fascinated by him, curious about him. And how do you come out of it?

WALTER ISAACSON: I come out of this book realizing how much more human and interesting his life was. I was slightly intimidated, as I think all of us might be, about Einstein. But by the end of this book, I felt, you know, it'd be fun to be walking with him.

He had a great sparkling sense of humor. He was very self-deprecating in his wit, a little bit absent-minded, didn't wear socks, didn't comb his hair. He once was walking through Princeton, got lost, and had to call the dean's office to ask where his house was. So it was fun to be walking in his footsteps, watching him as a real human being.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you very much, Walter Isaacson.

WALTER ISAACSON: Thanks a lot, Judy.