Fall for the Book: Einstein: His Life and Universe

Walter Issacson's affection and respect for his subject in Einstein: His Life and Universe was delightfully obvious as he spoke at one of the premiere events of the annual Fall for the Book festival.

Dapper and youthful, the former network mogul enthusiastically paced across the stage at the GMU Harris Theater. He spoke in length about the Albert Einstein he knew through letters, papers, diaries and interviews. He detailed with awe his experience touching documents Einstein wrote that changed the world, how he went to the places to which Einstein had traveled.

He marveled aloud about how the average lay reader could read Einstein’s papers — and proved it by explaining Einstein’s ideas in terms the average audience member could understand.

Isaacson said he considers narrative writers “non-academic popularizers.” He noted that many scientists had written, and will continue to write, on Einstein’s theories. He, on the other hand, was a “scientific popularizer,” something he would like to see more people attempt.

Truly, after listening to Isaacson speak about Einstein, I felt closer to the scientist than I ever had. Isaacson was able to bring about the humanity and brilliance of the man while at the same time recognizing his all-too-human foibles. I also think Einstein would have appreciated such a lay person reading what Isaacson called his “spunky little piece.”

Isaacson has written a number of books on very well-known historical figures, including Henry Kissinger and Benjamin Franklin (the latter of whom was a personal favorite of my father’s and the first Isaacson book I ever purchased). Isaacson said the subject he liked best was Franklin, thought Einstein was the most fascinating to him. Kissinger, with whom he now is acquainted, was the one he was least fond of because of the former secretary of state's moral compass.

The evening clearly belonged to Einstein, a late bloomer whose ability to visualize made him the scientist he was. Coupled with his rejection of convention, every day of his life he did exactly as his patent office supervisor commanded him to do: challenge every assumption and question every assertion. While these approaches were unpopular with his university instructors (and the reason he wound up in the Swiss patent office in the first place), it honed the mind of a person who, as a child, marveled at the unseen force holding his compass needle to the north.

Isaacson — and Einstein, in his time — encourage people to not be intimidated, but to think and challenge convention.

“Defiance of authority has been my guardian angel in this world,” the scientist once said, and one cannot help but embrace such thinking.

I myself would add: learn about that which you are defying. Prove yourself right by knowing all about what you are trying to prove wrong.

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