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The Life Behind Einstein's World-Changing Ideas

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

We all know Albert Einstein was smart, but Walter Isaacson's new biography of the famous physicist explains his convoluted path to genius: from the shy child who was slow to speak to the scientist who shook the world with his revolutionary theories on space, time, gravitation and energy. Einstein was working as a patent clerk in Bern, Switzerland, when in his spare time, he authored five papers that outlined his ideas.

NORRIS: His Life and Universe." The author, Walter Isaacson, stopped by our studios today to talk about his book and his painstaking research. He says Einstein's true genius lay in his creativity.

WALTER ISAACSON: He was different for most of the great scientists of his time. In fact, some were probably smarter than he was in pure mathematics - somebody like Henri Poincare or Lawrence or Max Planck. But what Einstein was able to do was - to use a cliché - think out of the box. He really did think differently from them, and he applied his creativity.

So when all of them were wondering why the speed of light always seems constant no matter how fast you're moving, it was Einstein who would be able to say, well, maybe because time slows down when you move fast that time is not an absolute.

NORRIS: He seemed to have an inner compass, even when people didn't seem to understand him and even when he was sort of purposely misunderstood. He knew that he was destined for something great. He seemed to sort of understand that, even though the world was sort of slow to catch on. Who set that compass for him?

ISAACSON: Well, let's talk about the compass, because it is a really beautiful tale that I learned, which is at age four or five, his dad gives him a compass. And he's stunned and impressed in awed by why that needle always points north. Now, you and I, Michele, remember getting compasses as kids, and we thought it was kind of cool, but we didn't sit there, you know, worrying about it with our hands sweating and saying, how does that magnet know to move?

What is the unseen field behind all of the things in this world? So he develops an appreciation for the unseen laws of nature. And that becomes his compass needle for the rest of his life. And he has a funny line, in a way, when they proved general relativity right, somebody says, what would you have felt if the experiment had turned out the other way? He said, I would have felt sorry for the good Lord...

NORRIS: Hmm.

ISAACSON: ...because the theory is correct.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NORRIS: Walter, his life has been examined many times over in scientific detail and popular literature. Why go to such an effort to understand this man, this scientist in particular, when there are so many other scientific visionaries whose lives are not well understood?

ISAACSON: Well, Einstein has had so many good books written, especially about his science. But to understand the relationship between his personality, the way his mind worked, the way he lived his life and how he did his science, to me, is inspirational. It also helps us understand what genius and creativity is. And I just wanted a good, comprehensive, you know, full biography of him that tried to weave together the political, the personal and the scientific.

NORRIS: There's been much speculation over the years on what one columnist called the relative importance of Mrs. Einstein, the question of whether she was a full-fledged collaborator in his work. What did you come to conclude about this?

ISAACSON: Mileva Maric, who was the first wife of Albert Einstein, was a brooding, wonderful Serbian physics and math student with Einstein when they studied together in college in Zurich. They fell madly in love. They had an illegitimate child that they put up for adoption. Finally, they get married when he gets a job. He has trouble getting a job. He finally gets a job as a third class examiner in a patent office.

And while he's working in the patent office, on his spare time, he's doing these four or five papers that will totally transform physics. And she's helping him check the math, to some extent being a sounding board, and helping him get the papers together. But the ideas are Einstein's, because you now look at all the letters, it wasn't as if she was coming up with the theories. But she really did help, and frankly, had to put up with him during that period, which was hard to do.

Finally, when they're getting a divorce, he still doesn't have enough money to afford a divorce. But he says to her, one of these days, one of those 1905 papers is going to win the Nobel Prize. And when it does, if you give me a divorce, I will give you the money. She thinks about it for a week. She consults with a lawyer and a physicist, and finally decides to take the bet. And in 1922, when he's awarded the Nobel Prize, she collects and she buys three apartment buildings in Zurich.

NORRIS: This pursuit of a Unified Theory, why was that so important to him, to create a sort of order for the universe?

ISAACSON: He really believed in bringing things together. He felt that if you could get a Unified Theory, it would take the theories that he had developed of relativity, and then the new theories of quantum mechanics that had arisen based on Einstein's earlier work, and they were incompatible. And when he saw two incompatible theories, he got very nervous. He just didn't like it.

And so he was almost driven, compelled by his own inner nature to try to tidy up things and figure out isn't there a Unified Theory that explains things? He was also uncomfortable with the uncertainties and probabilities that a part of quantum mechanics. And he felt some Unified Theory might bring back rigid determinism and causality, which he loved in science.

NORRIS: Was there also a social or religious aspect to this, that he was concerned about the possible explanations of the alternative?

ISAACSON: What he really felt was that there were laws that govern things. He was a realist, as we would say. Even if you couldn't observe the laws or observe the things that somehow there were underlying laws, and it was our goal to find the harmony of nature. And he had a religious belief in the harmony of nature. He said that the good Lord had made harmonious laws in the universe. It was like a child walking into a library, and you know the books are ordered, and it's our job to find out how the good Lord ordered them.

NORRIS: He managed to hold on to a sense of wonder and joy. In reading this, it seemed that there was a bit of a young Albert Einstein even in the very old man.

ISAACSON: Mm-hmm. He would say to a friend, you and I were made like children our entire lives, and that's what makes life so wonderful. We retain that child-like awe. It's just like looking at that compass when he was four or five years old. He had a child-like awe about everything. And that's what is the beauty of great of science, that somebody like an Isaac Newton could feel awe as an apple falls, or a Galileo could feel awe at how two things dropping accelerate the same speed, or Einstein feels awe about a field theory.

And it's a child-like sense of wonder that is a true component of their genius.

NORRIS: There is a common picture, you'll see it in college dormitories all across the country, perhaps all across the world - Albert Einstein riding a bicycle with a sort of quizzical look on his face. After spending so much time with his letters, doing this research, how true is that image to the man that you've come to know?

ISAACSON: It's very true, because he was a person who loved fun, was very genial. And he writes a letter to his son, which I quote with that picture in my book, which is "Life is like riding a bicycle, in order to keep your balance, you must keep moving." And that was in 1930 Albert Einstein to his son, and that's what he kind of felt about life, that we were peddling, trying to keep our balance, but that we should enjoy life.

NORRIS: Walter, thanks so much for coming in to talk to us.

ISAACSON: It's great being with you again, Michele.

NORRIS: Walter Isaacson is the author of "Einstein: His Life and Universe."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NORRIS: You can read an excerpt from the book, where Walter Isaacson outlines the reasons why Einstein became a scientific supernova. That's at our Web site, npr.org.

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.