The first book I've completed in 2009! And it was a good one (and a library book, in keeping with my New Year's resolution to be a bit more frugal).
What distinguishes this book from other Einstein biographies is that the author relied on many of the newly released personal letters from Einstein's estate. Therefore, we get a better idea of what made Einstein tick and how he approached his work. Einstein saw it as part of his mission to extend the work of James Clerk Maxwell (who died the year Einstein was born), as a theorist who shed prevailing biases, leading him into the territory of field theories.
Now, I've read the book and still have very little idea of what a field theory is all about. Here's Einstein's take on it:
A new concept appeared in physics, the most important invention since Newton's time: the field. It needed great scientific imagination to realize that is not the charges nor the particles but the field in the space between the charges and particles that is essential for the description of physical phenomena.
This thinking led to the breakthroughs of his "miracle year" - 1905 - that saw the breaks from classical, Newtonian physics and into the revolutionary thinking of relativity - with its unsettling implications that perhaps randomness is at the heart of the behavior of the universe, and not order. What fascinated me was how Einstein basically spent the last years of his life trying to find a way around the theory that he postulated. And it was ironic that Einstein completed his famous paper that would revolutionize science but had not been able to earn a doctorate degree!
At the same time Einstein was deconstructing the universe, the same sort of breaking down of classical conventions was also happening in literature with Proust and art with the Impressionists. It is fascinating that the world as a whole seemed to be at the brink of a new era, in diverse areas, at the same time.
I enjoyed reading about Einstein the man, too, who seemed so humble, humorous, and kind (although not the best in relationships alas). "I regard class differences as a contrary to justice," he once wrote. "I also consider that plain living is good for everybody, physically and mentally."
It is so cliche, but the man was a genius, far ahead of his time. Liberty, he said, is the necessary foundation for the development of all true values.
We were lucky to have him then. I wish we had him now.