cover image Einstein: A Life

Einstein: A Life

Denis Brian. John Wiley & Sons, $30 (528pp) ISBN 978-0-471-11459-8

With his halo of white hair, Albert Einstein looked the part of the century's secular saint, and Brian quotes a child asking, ""Is that the Lord?"" As the successor to Copernicus and Newton in revolutionizing concepts of the physical universe, Einstein was possibly the next best thing. Aside from awkward paragraph transitions and some lazy shortcuts that use parts of interviews verbatim, Brian's anecdotal biography, with just enough science to make Einstein's achievements persuasive, humanizes the icon, whose private life was guarded by zealous executors after his death at 76 in 1955. Once Einstein's elegantly audacious relativity theory emerged in 1905, when he was an obscure 26-year-old Swiss Patent Office examiner, he was on his way to a reputation as ""the Columbus of science,"" his every scrap of paper so treasured that some of his checks were not cashed. In a few strokes of his pen--E=MC2--he revolutionized physics, explaining, ""Time and space and gravitation have no separate existence from matter."" Despite years of resistance from scientific and political reactionaries, deftly dramatized by Brian, observed phenomena would validate Einstein's equations. After his Nobel Prize in 1922, he unsuccessfully chased the holy grail of physics, a ""unified field theory"" that might mesh electromagnetism with gravitation. No more successful were his two marriages or his parenting. Eager to prove that the liberal, sometimes naive Jewish refugee from the Nazis was disloyal to his adopted country, J. Edgar Hoover would compile a 1160-page file, what Brian calls a jumble ""of fact and fantasy, of lies, rumors, and ravings""--the largest and most unreliable of the dozens of biographies of Einstein. More the life than the work, Brian's unworshipful account is genial and judicious. (May)