On “Einstein” by Isaacson

Mark Looi
19 min readOct 2, 2021

Albert Einstein has been the subject of a number of biographies; Walter Isaacson, the biographer of Steve Jobs and Jennifer Doudna, wrote an updated account of the famous physicists’ life in 2007 that steers clear of hero-worship but is generous in his accounting. He describes the unlikely and fascinating arc of Einstein’s life from a young Jew born in Swabia, in southwestern Germany, to a celebrity scientist by the time he was in his forties, to exile in America, where he was a catalyst for the atomic bomb, and there to be swept up in the Red scare of the 1950’s. Isaacson treads lightly on the physics, describing mainly the central outputs of his science, and focuses on the man, his at times troubled domestic life, his celebrity, and his remarkable contemporaries.

Isaacson’s biography is an essential book for those interested in Einstein, the rise of modern physics, and the geopolitical tumult of the first half of the 20th century.

Sketch of His Life

Einstein was born in 1879 to a secular Jewish-German family in Ulm, Swabia in Southwestern Germany. He was an inquisitive and bright child, belying the later myths about his poor grades and indifferent studies, and was an accomplished violinist and loved music. He did well in algebra and other elementary mathematics. Through a family friend, he took to geometry, higher mathematics, philosophy including Kant, Hume and Mach. Einstein resisted authority which didn’t go so well with the Prussian education system.

When he was just 15, for economic reasons, his parents moved to Italy, but Einstein stayed in Munich to complete his high school studies. Conflict with teachers caused him to dropout of high school. However, he promised his parents he would prepare by himself for admission into the Zurich Polytechnic, soon to be known as the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule, or ETH, perhaps the most famous Swiss institution of higher learning today. To prepare, he spent a year in Aarau with a host family and attended a local school. In 1896, he sat for the exam and did quite well, except in French. He enrolled at the ETH in the same year.

He specialized in physics, but received in low grade in a lab class, mostly because Einstein didn’t attend frequently enough. He was indifferent to the lab experimentation procedures; anyone…

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Mark Looi

Entrepreneur, technologist, business strategist, history buff, photographer, with a diverse range of interests.