Time for a moratorium? Isaacson, Einstein, and the challenge of scientific biography

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Content: REVIEW ESSAY Time for a Moratorium? Isaacson, Einstein, and the Challenge of Scientific Biography Don Howard Walter Isaacson. Einstein: His Life and Universe. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007. pp. 704. T HERE ARE TOO MANY BOOKS ON EINSTEIN. Walter Isaacson's readable and engaging new addition to that long list is, on balance, the best of the recent crop of comprehensive biographies. Still, there are too many books on Einstein.1 Shall we call for a moratorium? The Isaacson biography affords us an opportunity to reflect on some of the various challenges to be met in biographical studies of Einstein, specifically, and in scientific biography more generally. Some challenges are obvious and generic. Writing a good scientific biography requires a set of skills rarely found in a single author. One must know, and be able to narrate, a history. A measure of psychological insight is needed. Simple writerly talents help to produce an engaging story. Above all, one must be a master of the relevant science. Einstein, as a subject, poses extra challenges, because he was not just a scientist. He was also a philosopher of more than modest importance and a prominent voice on a wide array of Don Howard, "Time for a Moratorium? Isaacson, Einstein, and the Challenge of Scientific Biography," Journal of Historical Biography 3 (Spring 2008): 124-133, www.ucfv.ca/jhb. © Journal of Historical Biography 2008. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons 3.0 License.
TIME FOR A MORATORIUM? 125 social and political issues. Isaacson is an insightful and talented author who knows, and can write about, history. Unfortunately, he is not, himself, a master of the relevant physics and philosophy, and while he found more and better help with Einstein's science than do most biographers, shortcomings remain.2 The result is a biography stronger on the science than Nancy Greenspan's recent biography of Max Born, and less distracted by needless technical detail than Charles Enz's recent biography of Wolfgang Pauli.3 But Ruth Sime does a better job of marshalling all of the necessary skills in her recent work on Lise Meitner,4 and one is hard pressed to imagine anyone ever pulling it all together, in the case of Einstein, better than did Abraham Pais in his masterful but, unfortunately, now noticeably dated intellectual biography, "Subtle is the Lord. . .": The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein.5 The example of Pais suggests that, given the importance of science in scientific biography, the writing of such should be left to those with the relevant technical abilities complemented by the historian's habit of mind.6 If the result is fewer scientific biographies, the public and the cause of scholarship might, for that very reason, be better served. Ample room remains for work that focuses exclusively on a scientist's non-scientific activities, work that can be all the better for not pretending to do what only the technically adept can do.7 The prominence of technical material in scientific biography makes more acute in this genre another common challenge, that of choosing between chronological and thematic structures. A thematic structure facilitates the coherent presentation of the science, helping the reader to understand, for instance, how general relativity was a logical next step for Einstein after his early work on special relativity and how Einstein's work on relativity relates to his work on the quantum theory. But Einstein's main work on special and general relativity stretched over nearly twenty years, from before the beginning of his university studies at the Polytechnic in Zurich in 1896 until after his move to a prestigious position at the centre of the world of German physics in Berlin in 1914. Much happened in both Einstein's life and the larger world in those twenty years: a love
126 JOURNAL OF HISTORICAL BIOGRAPHY affair, an illegitimate daughter, a job in the patent office, marriage, the birth of two sons, four major academic appointments, another love affair, the collapse of a marriage, and--not to overlook the obvious--the outbreak of World War I. Present relativity as a single package, and one loses both the narrative thread and a vivid sense of the way Einstein's scientific work was situated in a personal, professional, and political context. Move the chronology and the broader context into the foreground, as does Isaacson, and one risks that the science will seem incidental to the rest of the subject's life. As the presentation of the science loses its integral character, the logical and conceptual interconnections are lost, along with any real prospect of the reader understanding the science in some form other than bitesized morsels appropriate for serving up at a cocktail party.8 A middle way is necessary, if hard to chart. Every biographer worries about a new cache of letters being discovered just as the book reaches the bookstore shelves. With the current generation of Einstein biographies, this is an uncommonly serious problem, thanks to the happy fact of the ongoing project to publish The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein.9 With a large budget and a large, skilled, and dedicated staff, the Einstein Papers Project has, since the early to mid-1980s, yielded many new discoveries, the most famous being the discovery that Einstein and his future first wife, Mileva Mari, had an illegitimate daughter, Lieserl, in January 1902. Equally valuable, from the point of view of Einstein scholarship, are previously unknown or long-lost manuscripts that shed new and different light on important moments of scientific history. But a serious editorial project also involves more focused scholarly attention even to extant archival material and published papers. The editors' work of annotating and setting in context itself yields many new and important insights. Einstein scholarship is, therefore, continuously evolving. No biographer, however skilled, can pretend to pre-empt the work to be done by the Einstein Papers Project staff over the next twenty or more years. Any Einstein biography is, therefore, fated to be dated almost immediately upon publication. If market glut is not a sufficient reason for a moratorium on new
TIME FOR A MORATORIUM? 127 Einstein biographies, here is an even more compelling one. Since better and more complete biographies will be written after The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein is complete, since we already have readable and basically serviceable biographies,10 and since interest in Einstein will not diminish, why not be patient? New discoveries might quickly date a biography. Some new discoveries have other unhappy consequences. The Einstein literature of the last twenty years has suffered from an immoderate response to the discovery of the "love letters" that Albert and Mileva exchanged during and right after their student days11 and, to a lesser extent, from the discovery of a correspondence between Albert and his cousin and future second wife, Elsa Lцwenthal, starting several years before the separation from Mileva in 1914 that was caused largely by the affair between Albert and Elsa.12 Much of what emerged from these two sets of letters is of major importance for understanding Einstein's life and character and also the world that he and his family inhabited. A complicated and nuanced picture of Einstein, the human being, is a welcome replacement for the picture of Einstein, the secular saint, that was proffered in some older hagiographies. But in a world obsessed with celebrity misdeeds, it was inevitable that a literature would arise in which this part of the Einstein story loomed far too large.13 Isaacson resists this temptation more successfully than have too many recent biographers. A happy sense of place and proportion reigns. So, too, as regards the other immoderate response to the Mileva letters, which involves an author jumping from a love-smitten youth's few scattered remarks about "joint" work on relativity to hyperbolic assertions of Mileva having wrongly been denied credit as the co-discoverer of special relativity.14 There is no evidence to support such claims, and pressing them has the unfortunate effect of obscuring the far more interesting and important story of intellectual talent and ambition that made it possible for Mileva to get a good secondary education, first in her native Vojvodina, and later in Zagreb (no small achievement for a Serbian woman in the 1890s), and enabled her to pursue university-level scientific training in Zurich (again, no small accomplishment). All of her ambitions were,
128 JOURNAL OF HISTORICAL BIOGRAPHY unfortunately, frustrated by the mix of an illegitimate child, academic failure, and, after marriage, domestic drudgery as the wife of an emotionally and morally challenged young husband. In fact, aligning the arrows of causality in that mix is one of the tasks for serious scholars.15 Add up all of these challenges facing the Einstein biographer, and one has abundant reason to ask, as has been asked before and elsewhere, whether biography is the most appropriate genre of scholarship for appreciating and understanding Einstein and his world. Focus on the person invites hero worship. Even the biographer with critical distance can construct a narrative in which one's subject wrongly appears as the node into and out of which all important causal influences flow. One cannot fail to note that some of the more interesting recent contributions to Einstein scholarship come from authors who deliberately disavow a causal narrative, Peter Galison's controversial Einstein's Clocks and Poincarй's Maps being the best example,16 or who dramatically limit the narrative focus to some more local domain, as with Fred Jerome's delicious exposй, The Einstein File, or Max Jammer's thoughtful book, Einstein and Religion.17 A related question is whether biography foregrounding ideas--and how else would one write a scientific biography?-- wrongly exaggerates the place of individual intellect, to the neglect of both context (whether material, cultural, political, or other) and communities of dialogue and discourse.18 But whether a given individual's role in history is such as to render biography a helpful perspective is, itself, in part, an empirical and historical question. It is a plain and incontestable fact that some individuals make a difference on a scale such that biography is imperative. Can there be any serious argument that Einstein is an example? In Einstein's case, the question is not whether there should be more biographies. The questions are: "When?," "How?," and "By Whom?" The answers are, in reverse order: "By those who combine the requisite technical skills with the temperament and training of the historian," "By integrating chronology and the thematic in context," and "Wait at least twenty years, until after Einstein's Collected
TIME FOR A MORATORIUM? 129 Papers are all published." In the meantime, there is much to recommend Isaacson's biography of Einstein. As mentioned, it is well written, it gets the science basically right (if at a very elementary level), and it presents delicate issues with taste and a sense of balance. One might quibble with Isaacson's argument that Einstein, the young rebel of relativity, developed into a somewhat stodgy defender of scientific traditionalism when he realized where the quantum revolution was leading physics, just as professional success, fame, and marriage to a second wife who was happy in the limelight transformed the young bohemian into a comfortable bourgeois. That this is an old trope in the Einstein literature doesn't make it true. Einstein can be seen, from youth to old age, as always a dissenter from scientific orthodoxy, it being the orthodoxy that changed, not Einstein. The Einstein who complained of Princeton's social snobbery and famously dressed in a plain sweatshirt was no bourgeois. And the Einstein who, in his very last years, bluntly challenged the madness of the nuclear arms race and the scandal of Cold War political persecution in the West as well as the East, was no friend of any political establishment. Still, as Einstein biographies go, this one deserves a place on one's bookshelf.
130 JOURNAL OF HISTORICAL BIOGRAPHY Notes 1 An incomplete list of some of the better biographical works from the past fifteen years or so would include: Denis Brian, Einstein: A Life (New York: J. Wiley, 1996); Alice Calaprice and Trevor Lipscombe, Einstein: A Biography (Westport, CN: Greenwood, 2005); David C. Cassidy, Einstein and Our World (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities, 1995); Albrecht Fцlsing, Albert Einstein: A Biography (New York: Viking, 1997); Roger Highfield and Paul Carter, The Private Lives of Albert Einstein (New York: St. Martin's, 1994); Thomas Levenson, Einstein in Berlin (New York: Bantam Books, 2003); Arthur I. Miller, Einstein, Picasso: Space, Time, and the Beauty that Causes Havoc (New York: Basic Books, 2001); Jьrgen Neffe, Einstein: A Biography (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2007); Dennis Overbye, Einstein in Love: A Scientific Romance (New York: Viking, 2000); and Michael White and John Gribbin, Einstein: A Life in Science (London: Simon & Schuster, 1993). 2 Two examples will suffice. (i) In his discussion of Einstein's "rotating disk" thought experiment, an important step on the road to general relativity's implication of spatio-temporal curvature, Isaacson repeats the common mistake of claiming that the circumference of the disk contracts, while the diameter does not, yielding a ratio of circumference to diameter less than (p. 192). In fact, it is the yardstick used to measure the circumference that contracts, yielding a circumference seemingly larger than for the stationary disk and thus a ratio of circumference to diameter greater than . For a careful discussion, see John Stachel, "The Rigidly Rotating Disk as the `Missing Link' in the History of General Relativity," in Einstein and the History of General Relativity, Don Howard and John Stachel, eds. (Boston: Birkhдuser, 1989), 48-62. (ii) Isaacson's discussion of Kant (pp. 82-83) is seriously flawed. It omits all mention of the crucial Kantian notion of "synthetic a priori" judgments and so wrongly assimilates the geometrical postulates that Einstein's general theory of relativity would challenge to judgments of the analytic type. Any good introduction to Kant's philosophy would explain this basic point. See, for example, Allen W. Wood, Kant (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005). 3 Nancy Thorndike Greenspan, The End of the Certain World: The Life and Science of Max Born, the Nobel Physicist Who Ignited the Quantum Revolution (New York: Basic Books, 2005); Charles P. Enz, No Time to Be Brief: A Scientific Biography of Wolfgang Pauli (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002). 4 Ruth Sime, Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996). 5 "Subtle is the Lord. . .": The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1982).
TIME FOR A MORATORIUM? 131 6 Writing a good scientific biography is by no means an impossible task. Restricting attention just to twentieth-century physics, the following are worthy of note for folding technically reliable accounts of the physics into an otherwise wellconstructed biographical narrative: Diana Kormos Barkan, Walther Nernst and the Transition to Modern physical science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999); David C. Cassidy, Uncertainty: The Life and Science of Werner Heisenberg (New York: W.H. Freeman, 1992); Kostas Gavroglu, Fritz London: A Scientific Biography (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995); Gennady Gorelik, The World of Andrei Sakharov: A Russian Physicist's Path to Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005); John L. Heilbron, Dilemmas of an Upright Man: Max Planck and the Fortunes of German Science (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986; reprint Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000); Lillian Hoddeson and Vicki Daitch, True Genius: The Life and Science of John Bardeen, the Only Winner of Two Nobel Prizes in Physics (Washington, D.C.: Joseph Henry Press, 2002); Martin J. Klein, Paul Ehrenfest (Amsterdam: North-Holland, 1970); Abraham Pais, Niels Bohr's Times: In Physics, Philosophy, and Polity (Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1991); Helge Kragh, Dirac: A Scientific Biography (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990); John S. Rigden, Rabi: Scientist and Citizen (New York: Basic Books, 1987; reprint Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000); and Emilio Segrи, Enrico Fermi: Physicist (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970). But note that all of these are written by authors who approach the task with a solid grounding in the physics. Of the newer Einstein biographies, Michael White and John R. Gribbin, Einstein: A Life in Science (New York: Dutton, 1994) probably does the best job with Einstein's scientific work, though those who can read German might also want to consult Armin Hermann, Einstein. Der Weltweise und sein Jahrhundert. Eine Biographie (Munich: Piper, 1994). 7 A superb recent example of a book with more limited ambitions (even though the authors do not lack technical ability) is David E. Rowe and Robert J. Schulmann, Einstein on Politics: His Private Thoughts and Public Stands on Zionism, War, Peace, and the Bomb (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007). 8 As Neffe's Einstein: A Biography proves, choosing a thematic structure does not, by itself, guarantee that one will do a good job with the science. 9 The Einstein Papers Project is now located at Cal Tech under the editorial direction of Diana Kormos Buchwald (http://www.einstein.caltech.edu/). Since 1987, ten volumes have been published by Princeton University Press, covering the period from Einstein's birth in 1879 through 1920 (correspondence) and 1921 (writings). 10 Even some of the older biographies can still hold their own. Among my favorites
132 JOURNAL OF HISTORICAL BIOGRAPHY are: Jeremy Bernstein, Einstein (New York: Viking, 1973); Ronald W. Clark, Einstein: The Life and Times (New York: World, 1971); Philipp Frank, Einstein: His Life and Times (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1947); and Banesh Hoffmann and Helen Dukas, Albert Einstein, Creator and Rebel (New York: Viking, 1972). Einstein's own intellectual autobiography should also be consulted, preferably in the corrected English translation: Albert Einstein, Autobiographical Notes: A Centennial Edition, Paul Arthur Schilpp, trans. and ed. (La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1979). 11 The letters were first published in John Stachel et al., eds., The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein. Vol. 1, The Early Years, 1879-1902 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987). They were republished separately in Jьrgen Renn, Robert Schulmann, and Shawn Smith, eds. Albert Einstein/Mileva Mari: The Love Letters (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992). 12 The Einstein-Lцwenthal letters were published in Martin Klein et al., eds., The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein. Vol. 5, The Swiss Years: Correspondence, 1902-1914 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993). 13 Various of the recent biographies go on at too great a length about the birth of Lieserl and the complicated relationship that evolved between Albert and Mileva, among them Fцlsing, Albert Einstein: A Biography, Highfield and Carter, The Private Lives of Albert Einstein, and Neffe, Einstein: A Biography. But the book that has done more than any other to fuel the obsession is Michele Zackheim, Einstein's Daughter: The Search for Lieserl (New York: Riverhead Books, 1999). 14 A role for Mari in the discovery of relativity was first asserted by Desanka Trbuhovi-Gjuri in U senci Albert Ajnstajna (Krusevac: Bagdala, 1969). The book is better known in its German translation, Im Schatten Albert Einsteins. Das tragische Leben der Mileva Einstein-Mari (Berlin: Paul Haupt, 1983), a fifth, revised, and augmented edition of which was published in 1993. After the publication of the Einstein-Mari correspondence, arguments on Mari's behalf intensified. See, for example, Senta Troemel-Ploetz, "Mileva Einstein-Mari: The Woman Who Did Einstein's Mathematics," Women's Studies International Forum 13 (1990), 415-432. The issue even made its way into the "Letters" section of Physics Today; see Evan Harris Walker, "Did Einstein Espouse His Spouse's Ideas?" Physics Today 42, no. 2 (February 1989), 9-11, and "Mileva Mari's Relativistic Role" Physics Today 44, no. 2 (February 1991), 122-24. 15 For the most balanced discussion of Mari's role in Einstein's early scientific work, see John Stachel, "Albert Einstein and Mileva Mari: A Collaboration that Failed to Develop," in Einstein from B to Z (Boston: Birkhдuser, 2002), 39-55. 16 Peter Galilson, Einstein's Clocks and Poincarй's Maps: Empires of Time (New York: W. W. Norton, 2003). For a somewhat Critical Review, see Jeremy Gray, "Finding the Time: The Scientific Struggle to Bring the World's Clocks into
TIME FOR A MORATORIUM? 133 Line," Nature 424 (21 August 2003), 879-80; Dominique Pestre provided a much more enthusiastic review in Isis 96 (2005), 664-65. 17 Fred Jerome, The Einstein File: J. Edgar Hoover's Secret War Against the World's Most Famous Scientist (New York: St. Martin's, 2002); Max Jammer, Einstein and Religion: Physics and Theology (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999). 18 A much-discussed and provocative recent reconstruction of the "dialogical" context of Einstein's debate with Bohr and others over Quantum Mechanics is: Mara Beller, Quantum Dialogue: The Making of a Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999). Context of a different kind­social, political, and cultural­is the focus of Lewis S. Feuer, Einstein and the Generations of Science (New York: Basic Books, 1974).

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