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Biographer delves into life of Einstein

Story Highlights

• Albert Einstein is the subject of biography by Walter Isaacson
• Scientist was a unique individual, a larger-than-life celebrity
• He had an uneven home life
• Complicated relationship with God, religion
By Todd Leopold
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(CNN) -- Albert Einstein was more than an Einstein.

The scientist whose name became synonymous with "genius" was certainly that, blessed with a gift for innovative, creative thinking and endless reserves of determination.

But there were other sides to the legendary physicist. There was the celebrity, thrust into the limelight by his theories of special and general relativity, treated by the press as dignitary and spokesman. There was the quotable wit whose image has lent itself to every avuncular movie scientist since the advent of sound.

And there was the sometimes diffident family man, capable of both shocking coldness and gentle humility.

He was, in short, quite a human being.

"He was in a class by himself," says Walter Isaacson, whose new biography, "Einstein: His Life and Universe" (Simon & Schuster), offers a comprehensive account of the 20th-century titan. (Gallery: The quotable Einstein)

"He not only had a rebellious creativity that was unmatched by anyone since Isaac Newton, he also had an engaging personality, passionate beliefs and a sparkling humor that made him a celebrity rivaled by only Charlie Chaplin," Isaacson says in a phone interview from a West Coast book tour stop.

A 'Miracle Year' and after

Einstein obviously fascinates, more than 50 years after his death. Isaacson's biography arrives at the same time as Jurgen Neffe's "Einstein: A Biography."

Isaacson and the editors of Time picked the scientist as their well-received "Person of the Century" in 1999external link, and today Isaacson's book is on top of The New York Times best-seller list. (After his stint at Time, Isaacson became head of CNN; he now oversees the Aspen Institute.)

It was as Time editor that Isaacson, who says he "likes to look at how people's minds work," decided to pursue a biography of the scientist. (His previous book, also a best-seller, was a biography of Benjamin Franklin.) With a number of Einstein's private papers coming available, Isaacson believed the time was ripe for a new biography, one that would more tightly weave "the personal, political, his family life and his human character," the author explains.

The New York Times Book Review said that Isaacson succeeded. Reviewer Corey S. Powell praises Isaacson's lively prose and adds, "If any 600-page book about relativity can be described as a page turner, 'Einstein: His Life and Universe' is it."

The basic outline of Einstein's life is well known. He was born in Ulm, Germany, in 1879, the son of middle-class parents. He was a slow verbal learner (though not, as legend says, a poor student; Isaacson reveals that young Albert's grades were good and he was an imaginative student) and became fascinated with science as a boy.

Upon finishing his schooling, he was unable to get a job as a professor and ended up in the Swiss Patent Office, where he came up with the papers of his "Miracle Year," 1905: entries on the photoelectric effect, Brownian motion, special relativity and matter-energy equivalence, the latter boiled down to his famous equation, E = mc2.

Eventually achieving recognition among peers with his revolutionary work, he published the general theory of relativityexternal link in 1915 and became an international star upon its confirmation in 1919. For the rest of his life, Einstein was sought out as an expert, his occasional pronouncements of impending breakthroughs -- particularly of a unified field theory, his never-found grail -- making front-page news.

He was the right man for the right time, both in terms of science and media, Isaacson adds. The end of World War I coincided with a huge rise in mass media as well as an intense interest in science, a discipline going in startling new directions. Einstein -- distinctive, quotable, with work that was at once hard to fathom but easy to picture -- found himself at the nexus of it all.

"Science tended to shun publicity, but Einstein had a love-hate relationship with the media," Isaacson says. "Journalists were thrilled to find that Einstein ... was such a personable, witty guy. With the unruly hair and the twinkling eyes, he made the perfect celebrity."

Man and God

He wasn't always the perfect mate, however.

Within a decade his first marriage, to Mileva Maric, a fellow math and science student, grew cold. In 1914, Einstein gave Maric a startling ultimatum, demanding that she "renounce all personal relations with me insofar as they are not completely necessary for social reasons," among other requests.

"That was one of the disappointing things about Einstein is how cold he was when he fell out of love with his first wife," Isaacson says. "But even though it's disappointing, it reminds us that the greatest of men are still made of flesh and blood."

Einstein later married his cousin, Elsa. Maric made out all right financially, as Einstein agreed to give her the substantial sum he earned from his Nobel Prize.

Relations with his two sons were uneven over the years, and his younger child, Eduard, suffered from mental illness and was institutionalized in his later years. Einstein's older son, Hans Albert, followed his father into the sciences and became a confidant in Einstein's last years. (An illegitimate daughter was likely put up for adoption.)

Einstein, raised a secular Jew, also had a rich, complicated relationship with God.

"He said that his concept of God was related to the spirit he found manifest in the laws of the universe," Isaacson says. "He said that the spirit of God's laws makes him feel humble and awed."

Indeed, he resisted some of the determinations of quantum theory because they insisted on what Einstein called "spooky uncertainties" in the universe -- to which Einstein famously responded that God "does not play dice."

He also retained a strong identification to Judaism, and was attuned to anti-Semitism throughout his life, long after leaving Europe just before the Nazi takeover of Germany. He even wrote an article for Collier's, "Why Do They Hate the Jews?", in November 1938 after the infamous Kristallnacht pogroms.

But he turned down the presidency of Israel, a primarily ceremonial post that was offered to him in the early '50s. By that time he was, as a chapter of Isaacson's book is titled, a "One-Worlder" in the face of the nuclear threat.

Einstein never gave up trying to figure out the universe -- he was still scribbling equations on his deathbed -- and his unusual life and creative intelligence make for few, if any, comparisons. Isaacson observes that "people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs share similarities with Einstein in that they're creative, driven and come up with ideas they can visualize." But none of them have won a Nobel Prize -- or have been as besieged by the popular news media.

After immersing himself in Einstein-iana for the last several years, Isaacson says he has even greater admiration for his subject. "I have more respect for the beauty and fun of his science and his mind," he says. "I also was surprised what a passionate human being he was, and what a tumultuous personal life he had."

He also appreciates how long a shadow Einstein still presents. "It's heartening," he adds, "that people like to marvel at the accomplishments and life of Einstein."


Walter Isaacson's biography of Albert Einstein is the No. 1 nonfiction book on The New York Times best-seller list.

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