Muhammad Ali was the most famous man in the world during the second half of the twentieth century; Albert Einstein was the world’s most famous man of the first half of the century. Theorists of social degeneration may appear to have rich matter for speculation there, but in fact the hero worship of the physicist was not much different from that of the pugilist: it was typical yahoo adulation on both counts. As Charlie Chaplin, who became an Einstein pal and sidekick—the laws of celebrity cohesion are even queerer than those of molecular bonding—noted when Einstein asked him why the public made such a commotion over them, “People cheer me because they all understand me, and they cheer you because nobody understands you.” The great passing show absorbed scientific genius of the highest order just as it does the ball-playing boys of summer and the ephemeral lovelies of bimbodom, and the onlookers had no idea what they were looking at; they just knew it was strange and wondrous.
Modern physics is indeed strange and wondrous and fiendishly difficult to describe and understand. The tensor mathematics that undergirds the general theory of relativity is so esoteric that Einstein himself had to seek the aid of an adept to conceive the geometry of spacetime and to work out the relevant equations. When a colleague remarked to Arthur Eddington, whose astronomical observations helped to certify general relativity, that there were reportedly only three men who understood Einstein’s theory, Eddington answered, “Who’s the other one?”
So one is more than grateful when several writers of exceptional talent and mental wattage undertake to explain Einstein’s achievements in terms the layman can hope more or less to follow. Two new full-dress biographies that incorporate the latest scholarly information, Jürgen Neffe’s Einstein and Walter Isaacson’s Einstein: His Life and Universe, combine riveting accounts of Einstein’s life with generally intelligible recapitulations of his theoretical labors. Neffe is a German Ph.D. in biochemistry and the winner of Germany’s most prestigious journalism award, while Isaacson is a former managing editor of Time and the biographer of Henry Kissinger and Benjamin Franklin; in their admirable lucidity about scientific matters and their eye for the telling anecdote or quotation, both writers are eminently suited to take on Einstein for the general reader.
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