Every other person I’ve talked to this summer seems to be reading Walter Isaacson’s epic biography Einstein: His Life and Universe. It’s surprising because these are not folks I would describe as scientifically minded, and because the book isn’t new. It was published in 2007.
I bought my copy in June, as a tribute to a local bookstore that was closing. I got a good deal on it but have ended up paying dearly in lost sleep. I read late into the night, then find myself grappling with concepts such as four-dimensional space-time long after I switch off the bedside lamp.
I cannot pretend to understand even a fraction of the science in the book, despite Isaacson’s valiant efforts to simplify it. Others admit they don’t understand much of it either. Yet the narrative is captivating, because Albert Einstein was such an extraordinary character: a man of simple dispositions whose need to know shook our understanding of the universe we inhabit.
Einstein was consumed by the quest for higher and higher levels of truth. The spark ignited when he was very young. Isaacson recounts a story that’s been told before but remains gripping: A very young Einstein is sick in bed, and his father brings him a compass to cheer him up. Einstein later writes that he was so spellbound by the unseen forces moving the needle that he began to tremble and turned cold. In that instant, he was convinced that “something deeply hidden had to be behind things.”
A religious person might call that moment an epiphany. But Einstein wasn’t religious — at least not in the conventional sense of the term. He rejected organized religion and traditional notions of the Divine, yet was entirely comfortable discussing God and the Almighty (or to use one of his more playful phrases, “the Old One”), insofar as this connoted an infinite, mysterious, immutable law governing all of nature. “To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness,” he wrote in 1930. “In this sense, and in this sense only, I am a devoutly religious man.”
Einstein published his most important work when he was in his 20s. Yet, as Isaacson describes it, his hunger for a single, elegant equation or series of equations that would explain everything — a unified field theory — gnawed at him for the rest of his life. He worked on it until the end but never did find it. Nor has anyone else.
I wonder if the resurgent popularity of Isaacson’s book has something to do with the secular times we live in. For all of his scientific genius, for all the celebrity he enjoyed in the physical world, Einstein was profoundly spiritual: there’s no other word for his compulsion to search for truths that cannot be seen. I believe that we all share his quest to some degree — we’ve all had our young-Einstein moments that leave us needing to know more. A generation or two ago, many looked to organized religion for answers. Fewer do so today, but I am not convinced that people are any less spiritual. They are simply less public about it. We keep our inner selves to ourselves.
But sometimes it’s nice to know what others are thinking. One of the greatest minds in human history considered the search for a truth that surpasses all other truths to be a sacred quest; it validates our own inner explorations, be they ever so humble. We can identify with Einstein, with his yearnings and all-too-human limitations.
If that doesn’t make for irresistible reading, I don’t know what does.