Here's a promising recipe for a riveting biography:
Pick a scientific genius who made the remarkable jump to world icon from his otherwise-impenetrable field. Choose a subject whose life was a bubbling stew of distinctive quirks, media attention (an unkempt mane never hurts), a penchant for philandering with women and a panoply of dealings with famous people in other fields.
And what do you get? Well, four years ago, author Walter Isaacson snatched Ben Franklin for that biography. Now Isaacson has pulled a similar set of ingredients together with another hefty tome, this time of arguably the most famous mind of them all—Albert Einstein. (For those of you keeping score at home, The Atlantic ranked Franklin last year as No. 6 on its list of the 100 most influential Americans, and placed Einstein at No. 32.) Einstein: His Life and Universe (Simon & Schuster, 675 pages, $32) delivers on the promise of being a good read. But it's really two books.
One book deals with Einstein's breakthrough achievements. You may not have to be Einstein to understand them. But it doesn't hurt either, despite Isaacson's game efforts to translate Einstein's concepts of relativity to readers who survived high-school physics by peeking over their neighbor's shoulder one desk over just to get a B minus (not that we know anybody who actually did that).
But more interesting, or at least accessible to folks other than physics geeks, is the other book. That book draws on Einstein's rich life intersecting with pacifism, Zionism, communism, fascism and every other -ism that roiled the first half of the 20th century
Isaacson is no slouch when it comes to the small details in Einstein's life. Who knew, for example, that Einstein "put aside his antimilitary sentiments" to seek service in the Swiss Army, only to be rebuffed in part because he had hyperidrosis ped, a.k.a. sweaty feet.
Or when it comes to Einstein's thoughts—larger than even his quest for a unified field theory. Asked whether he believed in God, Einstein told an interviewer, "I'm not an atheist. The problem is too vast for our limited minds. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn't know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God."
It would at least be a good break for Einstein's hypothetical library patron if he stumbled on Isaacson's biography.