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Relative Stranger

The Other Einstein Biography Reveals The Man Behind The Icon

Einstein: A Biography

Author:Jürgen Neffe, translated from the German by Shelly Frisch
Release Date:2007
Publisher:Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 7/25/2007

Walter Isaacson's Einstein: His Life and Universe, a major biography of Albert Einstein, made headlines this spring. The big news: Late in his life, the great physicist dated a Russian spy.

A whole nother book could be written just about J. Edgar Hoover's sour obsession with "getting" Einstein, but even in the context of Cold War lunacy, Einstein's pre-Cold War dalliance with Margarita Konenkova didn't mean much. And, too, the "secret" (actually known since 1998) was also brought forth in 2005's Einstein: A Biography, written by Berlin biochemist Jürgen Neffe.

Neffe's updated, translated hardcover made its appearance on these shores in April, then dropped off the face of the Earth as Isaacson's book hovered high on the New York Times' best-seller list. Too bad: Neffe depicts Einstein as a person, not an icon, and dishes the dirt and detail we didn't know we needed.

There is a delicious tabloid element to Neffe's treatment, which opens with a rogue coroner's furtive removal of Einstein's brain, and then chronicles his affairs, illegitimate children, and coldness as a father. But there is much more to Neffe's book than genius through a Jerry Springer lens. An affiliate of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Neffe lustrously illustrates Einstein's epoch-making theories, tucking their symmetric beauty and shocking revelation into the context of his times.

Neffe also explains where Einstein got his ideas. Young Albert grew up in a houseful of engineers during an age of tinkering. He had hands-on experience with electric generators that were as new and revolutionary in the 1880s as computers were in the 1980s. That early experience--and reading broadly imaginative scientific works written for children--poured the foundation upon which Einstein built his greatest achievements. Neffe quotes from Einstein's childhood books, such as Aaron Bernstein's 20-volume Popular Books on Natural Science, to show the parallels between these and the master's later writings. Under Neffe's pen, Einstein is not some otherworldly being dropped to Earth by sympathetic aliens, but a product of the industrial revolution and a fortunate childhood. "Entrepreneurial frenzy coupled with urban sprawl, radical shifts in art, redefinition of social norms, and rapid technological and scientific progress were the defining characteristics of Einstein's generation," he writes.

The great scientist was also a flawed man, childlike and petulant in interpersonal relationships, blindly condescending to brilliant women, a failed father to his sons (one of whom was mentally ill), no father at all to his illegitimate daughter, and a fervent believer in the eugenic pseudoscience that underpinned Nazism. And Einstein, from the middle of his life until the end, made constant mistakes in his quest for a unified field theory uniting the giant world of relativity to the tiny realm of quantum mechanics. For a time, Einstein announced great breakthroughs almost annually, only to recant and retreat later. For all his revolutionary genius, he could not accept as final the probabilistic equations describing the quanta he discovered in 1905, insisting till the end that "God does not play dice."

The great strength of Neffe's Einstein, which draws from the same recently opened archival sources as Isaacson's, is in his sympathetic depiction of the dramas engendered by Einstein's great failures. These ran parallel: in science, in personal relationships, and in politics, where Einstein achieved his greatest notoriety. "After 1930, Einstein's opponents targeted his political views more than his physics--even in circles that were inclined to endorse his views," Neffe writes. "He spoke on every topic under the sun. `Abortion up to a certain stage of the pregnancy should be allowed if the woman so desires. Homosexuality should not be subject to persecution except where necessary to protect young people. In regard to sexual education: no secrecy.'"

Even as Neffe points to inconsistencies and contradictions in Einstein's many political pronouncements, his depiction ultimately is of a deeply brave soul--a thoughtful pacifist and internationalist in an age and place of nationalist military holocaust; a man without a country, an iconoclast who spoke truth to power, even when he had no power of his own. Einstein was reviled in Germany and spied upon by the FBI. Contrary to what many believe, he never worked on the atomic bomb: not because he was opposed to it--he wanted to drop one on Germany--but because he was deemed a "security risk."

"The first comprehensive FBI report on Einstein was completed on March 13, 1950," Neffe writes. "It contained a long list of alleged communist ties and activities during his years in Germany--including a great deal of information that Einstein would have been happy to volunteer at any time."

Einstein treated wives, lovers, and political causes in a way many Hollywood watchers would be familiar with today. But unlike today's icons, Einstein maintained a humbleness of spirit and a style to match. His great material loves, aside from his famous violin, were a small sailboat and a modest summer home in Caputh, Germany. "He had no need for a stately villa, like Thomas Mann, or for a banquet in the Adlon Hotel, like [writer Gerhardt] Hauptmann, or for stylish cars like Bertolt Brecht," Neffe explains. "He was satisfied with his fragrant little wooden house made of Oregon pine and Galician fir wood, in which he sometimes felt like Robinson Crusoe. [His wife] Elsa had wanted to build something larger, while he was almost ashamed at the grandeur of the house. `I think there is enough space here for all the scholars in the world whom I know and who have steered science onto new courses to gather together to talk and eat.' What more could he want?"

The book's chapters are organized thematically, rather than chronologically, and the jumping across decades is sometimes confusing. Quoted remarks are footnoted, but usually not attributed in the main text, creating for the careful reader a page-flipping chore. But there are gems here, and within a few chapters you begin to trust Neffe and understand his organization.

For Neffe, Einstein is not just the first media-fueled international superstar, but an epic, tragic, and ultimately triumphant figure. He is interested in the way Einstein warped human understanding--the way massive bodies bend space-time--but also in the ways in which fame warped Einstein. "The worship as a hero and saint with which Einstein was greeted after 1919, and which sometimes reached the point of hysteria . . . resulted in large part from his having razed the existing structure of physics with his monumental wrecking ball and established his new, and still valid, view of the world on the rubble," Neffe writes. "However, his lofty status stemmed from the effect he had on people at least as much as from his accomplishments."

E-mail Edward Ericson Jr.

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