A comprehensive, sympathetic and very readable portrait of the man, the celebrity, the scientist and the theories that transformed physics and the modern world.
Neffe, a German journalist specializing in scientific topics, is supremely qualified for his complex task. Although Albert Einstein (1879–1955) lived his final decades in Princeton after fleeing Nazi Germany, he never learned much English and suffered numerous indignities in his adopted country. Marginalized by the new generation of physicists, surveilled by the ever-suspicious J. Edgar Hoover, he never managed to complete his work on unified theory. Neffe begins with the greatest indignity of all: the autopsy at which a pathologist removed and absconded with Einstein’s brain and an ophthalmologist his eyes. The narrative then backtracks to “His Second Birth” as a scientific star in 1919, then provides a steady chronological account moving from ancestry to birth to death. Neffe pauses occasionally to clarify such intellectual matters as Einstein’s celebrated “thought experiments,” his theories of special and general relativity, his distaste for the uncertainties of quantum mechanics; some of these sections are dense and difficult. The biographer carefully and compassionately explores Einstein’s personality, which remained childlike throughout his life. Twice married, he was unable to be much of a husband or father; he repeatedly failed to credit colleagues; he sometimes leaped without looking into turbulent waters of public debate. Though he saw the need for force against Hitler, he was a lifelong pacifist and predicted the horrors of nuclear confrontation. In later chapters, Neffe explores Einstein’s astonishing, enduring celebrity and finds opportunities to both credit and damn the United States. Americans helped popularize the physicist and his theories; they admired him for his belief in God; and they also called him a “commie” and treated him like Cassandra.
Stellar research and prose combine in a splendid biography of physics’ most luminous supernova.