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Isaacson Reveals Rebellious, Creative Einstein

Posted by Sean Flynt on 2007-10-19

Isaacson Reveals Rebellious, Creative Einstein

Samford's 2007 Davis lecture on Thursday, Oct. 18 featured biographer Walter Isaacson, author of the acclaimed 2007 book Einstein: His Life and Universe. Isaacson, who also serves as President and CEO of the Aspen Institute, spoke only briefly about Einstein's theories, focusing instead on the physicists "rebelliousness, his imagination and his creativity".

In his lecture, the inaugural event of Samford's new Hanna Center, Isaacson also described multiple ironies scaled to the physicist's influence. Einstein was a genius but struggled to find a job in his field even as he radically reshaped science. He was a pacifist who inadvertently helped set off an international nuclear arms race. He made great strides in explaining the order of the universe but lived much of his life amidst personal and socio-political chaos.

The Dopey One 

Describing Einstein's early life, Isaacson offered "good news" for parents. "Einstein was no Einstein when he was a kid," Isaacson said. "He was very slow in learning how to talk-so slow that they called him 'the dopey one' in the family." However, Isaacson said, Einstein did not fail math as generations of hopeful students have been led to believe. The truth, Isaacson said, is that Einstein's rebellious ways annoyed teachers and led to his dismissal from two schools. "This Einstein, he'll never amount to much," concluded one headmaster.

For many years, Einstein didn't offer much reason to believe his headmaster was wrong. He ran away from home at age 17, seeking greater intellectual challenge, but failed to gain admittance to even a second-tier university on the first try. He was finally admitted to the university but then openly mocked a professor who declined to teach the latest work in physics. No wonder, then, that Einstein wandered jobless for years after graduation before becoming "a third-class clerk in the Swiss Patent Office".

Isaacson said Einstein couldn't even hope to rise in his patent work because to become a second or first class clerk he would need a doctorate, and his dissertation had been rejected twice. But it was there that the student whose professors called him a "lazy dog" began his life's work in earnest-the "thought experiments" that allowed him to overturn accepted theories of how the universe works.

While still jobless, Einstein fell in love with and married Mileva Maric, and with her had three children, the first out of wedlock and apparently given up for adoption. The couple soon fell apart and Einstein persuaded his wife to grant him a divorce in exchange for the cash award that would accompany the Nobel Prize he expected to win-and did win-- for the influential papers he published while still a clerk.

War and Peace 

Einstein won prestigious academic appointments in Berlin in 1914, but the outbreak of world war one alienated the leftist, pacifist Jew from nationalist German society. After the war, nationalist Germans sought scapegoats for their own catastrophic failures, blaming internationalists, pacifists and jews. "Einstein was three-for-three," Isaacson said. They ridiculed his 1921 Nobel Prize, calling his advanced theoretical work "Jew science".

In fact, Isaacson said, Einstein was not a traditionally religious person. Although he made frequent reference to "God," he did not believe in a being who interacted with humans or could suspend natural law. Einstein found his god in the astonishing complexity of the universe, and although his views were literally unorthodox he was highly respected among Jews. Though ever suspicious of nationalism, Einstein supported the Zionist cause and was later invited to serve as Israel's second president. And as a refugee from an increasingly anti-semitic Germany in the 1930s, he understood the danger the world faced if his erstwhile colleagues managed to harness atomic energy for the Nazi military.

Einstein collaborated with other physicists on a letter to Franklin Roosevelt warning about the kind of powerful weapon advanced physics might create. The U.S. government organized the Manhattan Project as a result, ultimately harnessing-and releasing-the destructive power of the atom. Einstein did not work on the weapon project because, Isaacson said, the U.S. government refused to grant him a security clearance due to his pre-war pacifism.

After world war two, Isaacson said, Einstein feared the threat of nuclear proliferation, especially as it didn't seem to be accompanied by an understanding of the new international reality that accompanied it. "Everything has changed except our way of thinking," Einstein said. "We have to change our way of thinking." He sensed the danger so acutely, Isaacson said, that when he was asked how world war three might be fought, Einstein responded, "I don't know, but I know how world-war four will be fought-with sticks and rocks."

Einstein worked for world peace until his death in 1955, but not at the expense of his work in physics. Even in the last moments of his life he sought to develop a Unified Field Theory "that would explain all the forces of nature," Isaacson said. As he lay dying in his hospital bed he wrote line after line of equations, "that," Isaacson said, "he thought could get him and us just one step closer to that spirit manifest in the laws of the universe".

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