by Walter Isaacson. New York, Simon and Schuster, 2007, 704 pp., $32.00.
Albert Einstein ranks high in the pantheon of the great geniuses. His new and definitive biography, written by Walter Isaacson, takes readers on a fascinating journey through his life and universe. For anyone interested in the history and philosophy of science, it provides a lucid summary of the achievements and controversies in physics during the 20th century. It is also a charming and insightful portrayal of Einstein the human being, enriched through access to many of his personal letters to friends and family that were not previously available. The man who emerges from this account is fresh and vibrant, despite the fact that he may have been the most famous and familiar figure of the 20th century. We see Einstein from many facets—his curiosity, impudence, simplicity, humility, spirituality, generosity, concern for mankind, contempt for authority, dedication to pacifism and world federalism, and commitment to Zionism. He becomes a loveable and admirable person, as well as a complex and paradoxical one. Many themes of interest to psychiatrists run through this book, which is so rich that a single review can touch only on a few.
What are the wellsprings of extraordinary creativity? What characteristics led to Einstein’s enormous capacity to see the world in such original ways? Foremost were his intense curiosity, his unwillingness to accept scientific dogmata, and his ability to perceive with a fresh and original vision. As a very young child, he was slow to develop verbally, but he himself considered this to be an advantage in some respects. He later described how he never took concepts such as space and time for granted, as adults do, and therefore he was able to perceive them in novel ways. He had a knack for seeing solutions visually, often having an insight about fundamentals of nature and only later finding a way to express it in words. Creativity has often been described as the ability to see a likeness in things that are unlike, and Einstein manifested this ability in much of his work. He could see fundamental unities in nature that others could not, ranging from space and time to gravity and light and non-Euclidean geometry. Like many creative people, he often went into a detached or dreamy state, from which his ideas eventually emerged. He emphasized that his ideas came to him as an intuition, although they were usually based on a substrate of previous knowledge. And he had intense powers of concentration: he is described as holding his young son in one arm while simultaneously writing out equations with his other hand.
Does creativity eventually “burn out,” or does it persist throughout life? In the case of mathematics and physics, many believe that the greatest achievements occur at younger ages and decrease over time. Einstein seems to exemplify this, at least at first impression. Beginning with a burst of creativity that led to the publication of his special theory of relativity in 1905 (as well as four other pivotal papers), he turned the world of physics upside down over the next 10 years, culminating with his paper on the general theory of relativity in 1915. Over time, however, he gradually began to assume the role of defender of an “old order,” when confronted by the implications of quantum mechanics and the rise of a generation of young Turks such as Heisenberg and Bohr. The uncertainty and unpredictability of their universe overturned the innate orderliness of physics, and this troubled Einstein throughout his later life, leading him to make the oft-repeated complaint that “God does not play dice with the universe.” He gradually had to admit that quantum mechanics might be true, but it was “incomplete.” As he himself said during his later years: “To punish me for my contempt for authority, fate made me an authority myself.” He spent much of his later life unsuccessfully seeking to create a unified field theory. However, it is probably a mistake to perceive his creativity as having burned out. He continued throughout his life to scribble equations, write papers and books, and mentor students. The pace slowed down, perhaps, but the creative fire never burned out.
What does Einstein’s life and career tell us about the relationship between creativity and mental illness? Multiple studies have demonstrated a relationship between creativity in the arts and mood disorder. Einstein does not seem to have displayed any signs of suffering from mood disorder. When confronted with personal pain, he generally coped well by immersing himself in his work. However, he and his first wife (Mileva Maric) had a son who suffered from schizophrenia. There is very little empirical data on the relationship between creativity and schizophrenia, although some anecdotal hints may suggest that creativity in mathematics and science may be linked to schizophrenia. (Bertrand Russell, for example, had a family that was heavily loaded with schizophrenia.)
Einstein fell passionately in love with Maric while attending the Zurich Polytechnic; in an era when women rarely obtained a college education—never mind one in math and physics—Maric was the only female student in the class. Initially they reveled in their Bohemian lifestyle and intellectual kinship. She checked his math and provided encouragement as he developed his first flurry of major papers while working as a clerk in the Swiss Patent Office in Bern. (Isaacson provides a reasonable and balanced discussion on the question of whether she also contributed substantively to the ideas embodied in his papers...and concludes that there is no evidence that she did.) They had two sons, Hans Albert and Eduard. Gradually the bond between Maric and Einstein deteriorated, as Einstein gained more scientific recognition and began a relationship with the woman who would become his second wife, Elsa. Maric, always prone to be moody, became severely depressed and required hospitalization. Eduard was more severely ill. Initially he planned to become a psychiatrist while a medical student at Zurich University. He never achieved this goal and was eventually institutionalized for most of his life, diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia. Einstein believed that Eduard inherited the genetic predisposition toward having schizophrenia from Maric. However, this is unlikely, since she suffered from mood disorder. Einstein himself had schizotypal traits that could constitute a predisposition: he displayed echolalia beginning in childhood; he often lacked the capacity to attribute mental states to others (“theory of mind”) and therefore could sometimes be socially inappropriate or insensitive, especially during his youth; he was frequently disheveled in appearance; he was dreamy and distracted. The possibility that his genes might have contributed to Eduard’s illness apparently never occurred to him.
One of the great strengths of this biography is that it provides an intimate opportunity to observe the many brilliant players acting out their roles in science during the 20th century. The cast of characters is large—Max Planck, J.J. Thompson, Marie Curie, Arthur Eddington, Max Born, David Hilbert, Nils Bohr, Henri Poincare, Werner Heisenberg, and many more. After one reads this book, these people are no longer names we once learned about in our physics textbooks many years ago. They are real people, just as Einstein is. They come alive and share the stage with its protagonist, collectively expressing the joy and suspense and excitement and aesthetic pleasure that occur in the pursuit of understanding the scientific principles that shape our universe.
Book review accepted for publication October 2008 (doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2008.08091381).