DATE April 10, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Walter Isaacson, author of "Einstein," a biography on
Albert Einstein, on Einstein's personal and academic life, and
why he is still so fondly remembered
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave DAVIES, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, filling in for Terry Gross.
Albert Einstein once said that imagination is more important than knowledge.
That's a persistent theme of a knew biography of Einstein by my guest Walter
Isaacson. His book draws a strong connection between Einstein's pathbreaking
scientific achievements and his rebellious personality, his resistance to
nearly any constraint, emotional or intellectual. Einstein was a German-born
Jew whose life was divided between Europe and America, spanning some of the
most tumultuous events of modern history, two world wars, the Holocaust, the
birth of nuclear weapons and the Cold War. Isaacson explores Einstein's
connection to these sweeping historical events as well as fascinating details
of his personal life, including strained relationships with his wives and sons
and an affair with a Russian spy.
Walter Isaacson has been chairman of CNN and managing editor of Time and
currently heads the Aspen Institute, a think tank that explores leadership and
policy issue. He's previously written biographies of Henry Kissinger and
Benjamin Franklin. His new book is "Einstein: His Life and Universe."
Well, Walter Isaacson, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I'd like to begin with
Einstein's first visit to the United States in 1921 and, at this point, he'd
spent his whole career in Europe, mostly Germany and Switzerland and had, by
this time, developed his general theory of relativity. What was the reaction
of the American public and press to this visiting scientist?
Mr. WALTER ISAACSON: It was absolutely astonishing. It's something that
even a rock star would be salivating about. Because here's a guy who had
slaved away in anonymity for years, working at a patent office for a while,
and finally, in 1919, they prove his theories correct by seeing that the sun
is able to bend the light from a star so he becomes a world celebrity. The
New York Times has a headline saying `Light's All Askew in the Universe,
Einstein Proved Correct.' So he's one of the most famous people on the planet
and he comes to America to help raise money for a Hebrew university in
Jerusalem and to help with the Palestinian settlements there, but also just to
celebrate the joy of science. And they have parades for him when he comes to
New York. When he goes to the Midwest they close down all the stores, ticker
tape. President Harding meets with him in the White House and talks about
relativity. The Senate debates his theories. Only in America could you have
something so wondrous as this.
DAVIES: You know, this is a question maybe more about American culture than
about Einstein the man. But what accounts for this nation--which, of course,
had a lot fewer college-educated people then than today--what accounts for
their fascination with this guy who'd developed this theory which was so hard
to grasp for most people?
Mr. ISAACSON: In some ways, it was because the theory was not all that hard
to grasp. It was sort of a, `Huh?' But then you go, `Wow, you mean, gravity
is able to bend light beams. You mean that energy and mass are both just the
different components of the same thing and you could release a lot of energy,
and time slows down if you're moving real fast?' All of those things were
things you could visualize, that you could see. Plus we'd gone through a
horrible world war of Germany vs. the United States and Britain, and here was
a German scientists who had been proven right by an English astronomer, and it
was a symbol of both world peace and the joy of science and the joy of science
that you could picture, you could visualize, that people could even discuss
and debate and explain to each other.
DAVIES: Let's talk about young Einstein. I mean, you describe him as a kid
that I think, today, a lot of middle class parents would have toted to a child
psychologist for consultation. What was he like as a kid?
Mr. ISAACSON: Well, the good new for all of us parents is that Albert
Einstein was no Einstein when he was a kid. I mean, he was very slow in
learning how to talk and even after he did talk, he had sort quirks in his
verbal ability that the maid called him "der Depperte," "the dopey one" in the
family. And he was such a rebel that he gets kicked out of school for defying
authority and another headmaster gets to amuse history by saying he'll never
amount to much and stuff. But it was partly that ability to think in pictures
and that rebellious, imaginative, creative streak in him that makes him such a
genius, because he was not smarter than the other physicists at the time, but
he was more creative.
DAVIES: Right. He had an ability to kind of stretch his vision. You write
that he had a mild form of, if I can say this correctly, echolalia?
Mr. ISAACSON: Well, echolalia. It just--he would repeat sentences to
himself silently until he could get then right and then say them out loud,
which is why he was so slow in his verbal ability. But in terms of picturing
things, when he's age six, his father gives him a compass. Now, you and I
probably remember getting a compass when we were a kid, but it doesn't blow us
away. For Einstein, he says his hands trembled, he says, as he marveled at,
`Why does that needle keep doing that when nothing's pushing on it?' And the
notion that underneath all these things that are visible is some unseen forces
stays with him the rest of his life, and even a few years later, he tries to
picture what would it be like to ride alongside a light beam. How would the
light waves look if you tried to catch up with them? And he couldn't figure
it out. He said he would go away in anxiety with sweaty palms. But it was
this ability to marvel at almost mundane things and look at pictures in a
whole new way.
DAVIES: So while you or I might be amused that the needle always returns
north, he would be obsessed by unlocking the forces that keep it there?
Mr. ISAACSON: And he was so obsessed that for the rest of his life he deals
with the notion of field theories. That's all relativity is, is the forces,
the field theories, the general theory of relativity that ties in
electromagnetism, and he tries to do it with gravity and stuff. And even to
his dying day he's trying to get the unified field theory. He's on his
deathbed and he's asking for his papers, writing more and more lines of
equations, trying to figure out what are those field theories, those hidden
forces in the universe that account for everything?
DAVIES: You know, Einstein lived a long time. He was born in--was it 1879?
Mr. ISAACSON: 1879.
DAVIES: Right. And then lived, I guess, until in his 80s, but...
Mr. ISAACSON: In 1955 in Princeton in died.
DAVIES: But what's remarkable is that most of his--his most scientifically
productive years were when he was younger, when he didn't even have an
academic job, couldn't find one. And was working in the Swiss patent office.
I mean, how could a man of his genius and insight not be able to get an
Mr. ISAACSON: Well, first of all, he graduates from the Zurich Polytechnic
and he's alienated all three of his major professors because he has such a
sort of impertinence when it comes to authority that none of them would
recommend him for a job, so he's the only person in his class at the Zurich
Polytech who doesn't get an academic job. And can't get any job. He's trying
to get a job as a tutor, trying to get a job teaching high school. Finally, a
friend gets him a job as a third-class examiner in the Swiss patent office.
But lest we feel sorry for him, I am convinced--and Einstein was, as
well--that part of his genius came from the fact that he wasn't immersed in
the academy at a university being an acolyte to other professors, but he was
looking at patent applications. People who had theories about how to
synchronize clocks, for example, because that's what they were doing in
Switzerland. Being Swiss, they were kind of obsessed with synchronizing their
clocks. And so they were using, you know, signals and radio signals and light
signals so that the clocks in one town could be synchronized with another.
And he's looking down at the train station below with all the trains coming in
and this is how he--helps him develop this theory of relativity, that if
you're moving, you'll never catch up with the speed of light and, therefore,
somebody moving, time will go a little bit more slowly than it will for
somebody who's at rest relative to the person looking at the clocks and stuff.
So all of these things in some ways are a mix of just taking very practical
things and trying to figure out the underlying theories, and he loved working
in the patent office. His best friend, Michel Besso, he gets him a job at the
patent office. They walk to work. It is with Michel Besso, the only person
in the special relativity paper who he gives credit to. He says he wants to
thank, you know, his friend Besso, for helping him with this breakthrough
because they walked to work each day and they talked about the patent
applications and the underlying physical theories.
DAVIES: So it was in 1905 when Einstein, you know, working full time as a
patent clerk, comes up with this brilliant set of papers which really kind of
revolutionizes physics as it stood at the time. I know there's a lot to it
and it's a little complicated, but what did he tell the world that it didn't
Mr. ISAACSON: In 1905 he's sitting there on his stool in the patent office,
working six days a week, watching the trains come in and out of the station,
his spare time he's writing papers and trying to get them published, and his
first paper is truly revolutionary. It says light is not only a wave but it
comes in particles that we now call quanta, and that sets the stage for all of
quantum theory, one of the great theories of the 20th century.
His second paper is a determination of the size of atoms, and this is when
many scientists didn't even believe atoms existed, but he found a way to
measure the size of atoms and molecules. Then he does another paper that
explains Brownian motion, which is why particles suspended in liquid, why they
jiggle, and it's this statistical analysis of atoms and molecules hitting
these particles and he explains that.
And then finally he does a paper in which it occurs to him that Newton is
wrong. Time and space aren't absolute and that, as you're moving, time is
different for you than somebody who's not moving with you, and that's the
special theory of relativity. After he does these four papers, he takes a
little bit of a vacation and something occurs to him that's really an
outgrowth of the special relativity paper, so he sends a little addendum into
the magazine. He says, `Oh, by the way, speaking of special relativity,
something's occurred to me. There's a relationship between energy and mass,
and the equation that describes that is E = MC squared.' So he produces the
most famous equation in all of physics and he's still just a patent clerk.
DAVIES: And how did the scientific world react to these papers from the
Mr. ISAACSON: Well, generally with a yawn, as you might expect. You know, a
patent clerk who hadn't earned a doctorate who's trying to publishing little
papers saying that Newton's wrong about space and time. Nowadays--you know,
it's a shame. Nowadays he probably couldn't have even have gotten published.
People would think he was a crank or something. But he gets them published
and generally they're not noticed, but one person does notice. And
fortunately it's the most important person that can possibly notice which is
the guy who, at least up until that moment, had been the greatest physicist in
all of the world, Max Planck. And he reads these papers and he sends an
assistant down to find this guy. The guy thinks he's at the University of
Zurich and is kind of surprised to find that he's actually at a patent office
and stuff, and eventually--it takes a while. I mean, not until 1909 is he
even offered an academic job, so even three or four years after he's written
those papers, even though a couple of people like Max Planck think, `Well,
there's something here,' most of the academic world wasn't even willing to
make him an assistant professor.
DAVIES: My guest is biographer Walter Isaacson. His new book is "Einstein:
His Life and Universe."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: Our guest is biographer Walter Isaacson. His latest book is
"Einstein: His Life and Universe."
By 1915 he comes up with the general theory of relativity, and I tread with
some caution in the science here. But explain what that is and how it's
different from the special theory of relativity he developed before.
Mr. ISAACSON: Well, it's the most elegant theory in all of science, and the
special theory is called the special theory because it deals only with uniform
motion. If you're on a train or a plane that's moving at uniform speed or
velocity, then everything is relative. And it doesn't include accelerated
motion and, also, it seems to conflict with theory of gravity that Newton had,
that things happen instantaneously. So he wants to generalize it, to make it
apply to all motion and he wants to tie it into gravity, and he comes up again
with a wonderful picture of thought experiment. Not a whole lot of math here.
It's just--if you're in an elevator and there's no windows and you're in outer
space where there's no gravity, but you're accelerating upward real fast,
you'll be pushed to the floor, and you'll feel as if there's gravity. If you
take a penny out of your pocket and let it go, it'll fall to the floor at an
accelerating rate if you're in that upwardly accelerating elevator, just as it
would if you were, you know, sitting still on the surface of the earth with
the gravity pulling it down. And so he says, acceleration and gravity are
equivalent in their effects. He calls it the equivalence theory. And what he
does is he realizes that just like that magnet needle, it's all part of a
field, and that's what gravity is. It's not what Newton said, which is some
spooky force that acts instantly at a distance.
And once again, he has a thought experiment. You know, imagine a bowling ball
and you roll it on the fabric of a trampoline, and then imagine you roll a
couple of billiard balls right after it. The billiard balls will curve
towards the bowling ball, not because of some force the bowling ball does, but
because the bowling ball curves the fabric of the trampoline. And what he
said was, all gravity is is when huge objects curve the entire fabric of
space. Now that's a little bit more complicated than curving a trampoline
fabric, but we can sort of picture it; and certainly, since he was Einstein
and we aren't, he can sort of picture it very well about curving all of space,
so that if you're a mass of objects, smaller objects will sort of bend toward
you, just like the billiard balls will on a trampoline fabric.
DAVIES: And then of course he employed sophisticated mathematics to work out
Mr. ISAACSON: Well, you know, the real triumph--and he never loved math when
he was in college. He didn't do that well in geometry. He thought math was
something other people could figure out once he did the theories, but finally
when he's doing relativity, he goes to his friend Marcel Grossman, who used to
take notes for him when they were in college together in math classes and
says, `Grossman, you've got to help me or I'll go mad. I need some math to
describe how the fabric of space curves.' And he said, `Well, what you need is
sort of a geometry.' It's called a Riemann geometry, where it talks about how
surfaces curve and the math to describe curving surfaces.
And he's in a race, by 1915, because everybody knows the general outline to
this theory of general relativity, how space is curved. But there's a
mathematician in Germany named David Hilbert, who's coming up with the
equations and trying to beat Einstein to come up with the exact right
equations. And in the end, they basically tie each other. By the end of
1915, they both come up with equations but Hilbert says, `Anyway, it's
Einstein's theory. I just helped a little bit with some of the math
DAVIES: And in 1919 we have an occasion where this groundbreaking theory is
actually put to an empirical test among the most dramatic of all events, an
eclipse of the sun, right?
Mr. ISAACSON: The most dramatic of all events and a great dramatic test. If
you imagine that curving of space that is general relativity and gravity,
Einstein says, if that's true, the light--a light beam will be curved as it
goes through a gravitation field. And he said, `And if you want to prove it
right, here's what my equations say. The light from a distant star, as it
goes right next to the sun, will bend about 1.7 arc seconds,' which is, you
know, less than an degree, but it's measurable.
But the only way to see that, of course, is during an eclipse. Because you
can't look at the stars on the the other side of the sun, you know, without an
eclipse, but when the eclipse happens, you see the stars. And if you take
pictures of them right before the eclipse when they're a little bit further
away, and then when the eclipse happens, you can see if they're apparently
been moved a tiny bit and that just because the light has been deflected when
they go by the sun, so you have Sir Arthur Eddington, this wonderful British
Quaker, right at the end of World War I, trying to help world peace by saying,
`If a British pacifist Quaker can prove right the theory of a German Jew right
at the end of World War I,' so he sails off to this island Principe in the
mid-Atlantic and photographs the eclipse and then comes back to the Royal
Academy in one of the most dramatic moments in all of science, and they look
up at the picture of Isaac Newton on the wall of the Royal Academy in London,
and say, you know, `Forgive us, Sir Isaac. We have revised your universe.
Einstein's theory is correct.'
DAVIES: It's interesting that around this time there's a turning point of
another kind in the arc of his life as you describe it. He's 40 years old.
He's developed what many have called one of the most astounding scientific
breakthroughs in the history of knowledge. Around this time, Niels Bohr is
developing quantum theory, which Einstein remains skeptical of the rest of his
life. And you say that really after age 40 he was far less productive and
innovative than he was in his first four decades. Why?
Mr. ISAACSON: Well, one thing about his first four decades is he was a
rebel. He defied authority. And then he becomes an authority and he laments
it. He says, `God has punished me for my contempt for authority by making me
an authority myself.' So he's protecting the old order and what's particularly
ironic is one of those 1905 papers was a basic foundation of quantum theory,
the notion that light is both wave and particle. And he knows that even in
1905 that he's undermining--he said that's the most revolutionary of all my
papers because it's undermining classic determinism. But he believes that it
just can't be true, all this uncertainty that is inherent in quantum
mechanics, and he keeps saying, `I can't believe that God would play dice with
the universe,' by which he means, `I can't believe things happened by chance,
that there isn't a strict causality or determinism that does things,' and it
was partly that as a child, that notion that there's an underlying harmony
waiting to be discovered. He just never got his mind around quantum
mechanics, and those very last equations on his deathbed for a unified field
theory, that was his way to try to overcome quantum mechanics, which he just
thought was incomplete.
DAVIES: And in effect, he spends his last decades in this quest for a
unifying field theory, something which would seem to explain all of the forces
at work in the universe, right?
Mr. ISAACSON: Well, yes, and you know, we can say it was a waste of time,
because he never really added much during that quest to the foundations of
physics, but I think we probably ought to wait a century before we pass
judgement. I mean, on this show, people like Brian Greene, who do string
theory and people who do loop quantum gravity, they're engaged in the same
quest, to try to find a theory of everything. And Einstein, when people sort
of said, `Why are you wasting your time doing this?' he said, `Because I can
afford to. I've already been famous, I've already been successful. Younger
scientists may not be able to pursue these things, but I feel it's part of my
destiny to try to understand those laws and magic that are underneath the
forces of the universe.'
DAVIES: Walter Isaacson's new book is "Einstein: His Life and Universe."
He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies and this is
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross. Our
guest is biographer Walter Isaacson, whose latest work is an account of Albert
Einstein's personal life and scientific achievements. Isaacson argues the two
are connected, that Einstein's brilliance as a physicist stemmed from a
rebellious personality that allowed him to defy convention and examine
scientific mysteries in original ways. Isaacson's book is "Einstein: His
Life and Universe."
Einstein grew up Jewish in a suburb of Munich, attending a Catholic school.
What was his relationship to Judaism as a youth?
Mr. ISAACSON: Well, for a while he was in a very secular family. His
parents name him Albert because his grandfather was Abraham and they thought
the name Abraham was too Jewish. And they thought they were being assimilated
into the German society they liked. Now, of course, that turns out to be
untrue, as we know from our 20th century history. But they were among the
Jews of southern Germany who thought of themselves as secular and very German.
Einstein, very interestingly, at age nine, 10, 11, becomes very religious for
a while, immerses himself in Jewish ritual. But then he reacts against it for
a while because--after he reads science and he said, `That helped me form my
sort of allergies to dogma and to received wisdom.' But even out of that
religious period, even though he doesn't keep practicing his Jewish religion,
he feels two things. First of all, he's always a believer in God. He does
believe in sort of an impersonal God, whose fingerprints are there to be seen
in the creation of the universe. Secondly, he feels a deep kinship to the
Jewish people. He calls them his tribal companions. And throughout his life
he's very interested in Jewish causes, Jewish refugees, resettling of
refugees, the foundation of the state of Israel, and even as anti-Semitism is
welling up in Germany, instead of trying to move away from his Jewishness, it
makes him more proud of his heritage.
DAVIES: Of course, he moved from German to study in Switzerland, actually
renounced his German citizenship as a youth and then, as he became a
celebrated scholar, returned to Germany to study and was there as Naziism
arose in the early '30s. How did he end up in the United States?
Mr. ISAACSON: Well, he does run away from Germany as a kid because he really
rejects the authoritarian Prussian attitudes. He's finally lured back, as you
say, to be a professor in Berlin, which is the center of theoretical physics.
But as Naziism is growing and growing, at this point he's a world celebrity,
he's touring the United States again, visiting professor at Cal Tech, been
invited to the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton, and he happens to
be in the United States in March of 1933 when Hitler takes power, and Einstein
is denounced by all the Nazis in Germany as Jewish science and that it's too
theoretical. And so he knows he can't go back to Germany, so he never returns
to Germany and eventually settles later that year in 1933 at the Institute of
Advanced Studies in Princeton. And once he settles in Princeton, he never
moves anywhere else.
DAVIES: He really came to love and admire American, right?
Mr. ISAACSON: He loved America for its freedoms and he fought for American
freedoms. He had a pretty simple philosophical set of equations about life,
which is, all that really matters in producing things is being creative and
being imaginative, and in order to be creative and imaginative, you have to be
free-thinking. You have to have the freedom of thought and speech. And
societies that repress free thought will never have creative and imaginative
And so he fought for free thought, free ideas and free minds, and that meant
he stood up against Hitler and he stood up against Naziism, and then against
Stalinism and communism, even though he was on the left in his political
philosophy and a socialist at heart. But he couldn't be a full-fledged
socialist because he didn't like state control and he really hated centralized
authority. And then he stands up against McCarthyism and everything else, and
he just is always unwavering in this sense that free minds, free thoughts and
free speech lead to great creative societies.
DAVIES: You know, if you look at the span of his life, I mean, he really
lives through these tremendous tumultuous events of the 20th century. He was
in Germany when World War I broke out. How did he respond to the outbreak of
World War I?
Mr. ISAACSON: He became a pacifist. He, as I said, really hated German
militarism. All the professors in Berlin, including the great Max Planck,
including Fritz Haber, who was Jewish but tried to, you know, convert to
Christianity and, you know, remain very loyal to the Germans, were all signing
on on the war effort. They're signing manifestos supporting Germany during
the war, and Einstein becomes a pacifist, opposes Germany's World War I
effort, and in some ways he's shunned. But of course it's happening, you
know, right as he's developing general relativity, and so they know he's the
greatest genius in their midst, but also they're a little bit worried about
his pacifist policies.
He revises his notion of pacifism after Hitler takes power, and everybody
thinks he's going to remain a pacifist and he's revered in America by the
pacifist community and in Europe, but he says, `No, no, no. I've revised my
political theories because I have new evidence. And when a Hitler comes to
power, you can't just be a pure pacifist. You have to take up the possibility
that you're going to defend against a Hitler.' So he's the one who writes the
letter to Franklin Roosevelt warning about the possibility of building an atom
DAVIES: The possibility that the Germans will be working on an atom bomb.
Mr. ISAACSON: Well, he says, you know, with a chain reaction possible,
German scientists may be taking the uranium out of the Congo, they may be
doing this in the United States--he's in the US by this point, it's 1939--we
have to start a project of our own to develop a bomb because Hitler may be
developing a bomb, which, particularly ironic given his love of free speech
and free thought, is that J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI, the beginning of the red
scares, even back then in 1939, they considered him too much of a security
risk. So he's not actually allowed to work on the Manhattan project, even
though it pretty much got its launch by the letter that Einstein sent to
DAVIES: So it's interesting that in the popular mind, Einstein, I think, was
associated very much with the development of atomic and nuclear weapons,
right? Wasn't there a Time magazine cover with his head and the mushroom
cloud on it?
Mr. ISAACSON: Yeah, you know, there's a wonderful Time magazine cover of a
painting of Einstein and the mushroom cloud of a nuclear bomb behind him, and
the letters `E = MC squared' written on the mushroom cloud, and it's actually
written by James...(unintelligible)...so it's just a truly wonderfully written
cover story. And in the public mind, here's the guy who wrote the letter to
Franklin Roosevelt explaining that a bomb might be possible and warning that
Germany may do it, and the underlying theory that from mass, if you release
it, you can get energy. He was associated with it, but he never actually
worked on the Manhattan project and certainly, right after the bomb is used,
he's feeling guilty in a way, or feeling very mixed emotions, and so he
becomes one of the leaders of the nuclear weapons control movement and those
sort of world peace movements to try to stop another use of the atom bomb.
DAVIES: And his theory essentially was that you needed some super national
authority to take control of these destructive weapons, right?
Mr. ISAACSON: He believed in a world government, federalism he said, which
is--the UN wasn't powerful enough. You had to have some authority that really
controlled all nuclear weapons so that different nations didn't get involved
in an arms race. And of course, most people by the 1950s though that was
incredibly naive. And in some ways, probably, it was a bit naive. And when
he was accused of being naive, he said, `You know, how do you think World War
III will be fought?' He said, `I don't know how World War III will be fought
but I do know how World War IV will be fought. It'll be fought with sticks
and rocks.' So in some ways he was much more realistic than some of the people
accused him of being naive.
DAVIES: So Einstein is in America after World War II and anti-communist
hysteria gradually grips the country. How did he react to it? Was he tainted
Mr. ISAACSON: Well, yes. I mean, the FBI compiles a huge dossier on Albert
Einstein, all the people who thought, because he was involved in pacifist
movements that he must be secretly pro-communist and stuff. They never found
anything. Those files you can--I've gone through them all; many people have.
There was nothing. He was, you know, he never visited Russia. Was not, you
know, pro-communist and stuff. But he was--his loyalty was questioned. He
wasn't really allowed to be given military secrets during World War II. His
friend J. Robert Oppenheimer, who was with him at the Institute for Advanced
Studies, famously had his security clearance revoked. And Einstein just stood
up for all the people attacked by McCarthyism. He would speak out. He would
write letters. He would say, `The thing that makes America great is its
freedoms. For goodness' sake, don't sacrifice the freedoms out of some
DAVIES: He wrote a letter asking for, I guess, not clemency but to at least
spare the lives of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, right, after they were
convicted of spying for the Russians?
Mr. ISAACSON: Yeah, he did it quietly, that letter, because he probably
thought Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were guilty of some of the espionage
charges, but he said, `We really want to reduce the hysteria, and so executing
them won't help.' He asked for clemency. He also, you know, writes letters
for just, you know, average professors who were called in front of the
McCarthy hearings, saying that the ability to teach freely is an important
part of what America is like. He told J. Robert Oppenheimer, just give up
your security clearance. Just don't even fight it. Just don't even take the
Fifth Amendment. Just talk about the First Amendment, which is, `I'm allowed
to say whatever I want to say because that's what a free country is all
DAVIES: And one of the most fascinating things that I read in your book was
that throughout all of this, I guess the FBI never realized that he had an
affair with a Russian spy.
Mr. ISAACSON: Yeah, that's right. Exactly. I don't think--he didn't know
it was a Russian spy, and the Russian spy, she wanted him to visit Russia.
She wanted him to come to the embassy. She wanted him to do things, and of
course he never did. He never visited went to Russia. But his wife had
died--his second wife died at that point, and he had this romance with her.
They went out to Long Island together and stuff. So it never amounted to too
much, but it does show that will all the tens of thousands of documents that
the FBI collected on him, they missed the fact that he actually had an affair
with a Russian spy.
DAVIES: Walter Isaacson's new biography of Albert Einstein is called
"Einstein: His Life and Universe." We'll hear more after a break. This is
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, my guest is Walter Isaacson. He is a
biographer whose new book is "Einstein: His Life and Universe."
We should talk some about Einstein's fascinating personal and family life.
His first marriage was to a Serbian physics student, Mileva Maric. Do I have
it--am I pronouncing it...
Mr. ISAACSON: Yeah, Mileva Maric was a brooding, sensitive physics student
who had conquered all of the hurdles--or almost all of them--that were
standing in the way of women who wanted to go into physics and math. She's
the only woman allowed in the Zagreb Academy and finally gets to the Zurich
Polytech and the only woman in Einstein's class, and Einstein falls madly in
love with her to the horror of most of his friends and his family because she
was--she had a limp. She was, you know, certainly not beautiful. But it was
a love affair of the mind. They have an illegitimate child that they give up
for adoption. They have a torrid romance and they write these wonderful love
letters to each other, and she helps Einstein with the 1905 papers, checking
his math and serving as a sounding board.
DAVIES: And they marry and have two children.
Mr. ISAACSON: They marry, have two children, Hans Albert and Edward. And
then they start drifting apart. Einstein, you know, drifts apart from his
wife. He's very cold and callous to her after a while. She is cold and, you
know, depressive and everything else, and they want to get a divorce.
Einstein can't possibly afford a divorce. They have these two kids. He's
barely able to get academic jobs, you know, by 1909 or so, but, you know, not
making any money. And he says to her finally, `Here's a deal I'll offer you.
One of these days one of those 1905 papers is going to win the Nobel Prize.
If you give me a divorce, I will give you the money when it wins a Nobel
Prize.' Now, she takes a week to try to calculate the odds and thinks about
it, gets a lawyer to draw up the deal and she accepts the deal. Now of course
it's not until 1922 that he finally wins the Nobel Prize, after they've
finally seen the bending of light and everything else and proven him right,
and she collects and buys three apartment buildings in Zurich.
DAVIES: And then just to keep things simple, he ends up marrying a cousin?
Mr. ISAACSON: He marries his first cousin Elsa. Well, you know, it's to
make the book more exciting that you have a sort of soap opera in the middle
of physics. But it is a wonderful soap opera, and Elsa is a lot cleverer than
she puts on, but she's certainly no scientist and certainly no rocket
scientist. And she's a very nurturing, slightly older, good cook, tends to
mother Einstein and take care of him, and they have a solid--not very
passionate after a while, but still solid--relationship, and he finally
reconciles himself with his two sons--Hans Albert moved over to America with
him. So things get better in the end, but during that period, while he's
doing general relativity and winning the Nobel Prize, his personal life is
something that would shock the writer of a daytime soap opera.
DAVIES: What's fascinating to me about the Einstein that emerges as I read
this book is we see him, particularly after he comes to the United States, as
this kind, humble man walking through the Princeton campus, never taken with
his own fame or status--a mensch, I mean, to use the Yiddish term. Just seems
like a wonderfully decent person with those whom he is not so close to, but
his relationships of intimacy are never easy. I mean, the marriages and the
difficulties with his older son, Hans Albert. What do you think accounts for
Mr. ISAACSON: Yeah, well, he had a love of humanity and a genial quality
that made everybody around him sort of adore him, but when it came very close
to the inner chambers of the heart, it was always--he resisted any commitments
or bonds. It was part of his nature and personality to resist anything that
may seem like convention and tying him. So that made him difficult,
sometimes, to the people close to him.
But by the time he's settled in Princeton, he's pretty much reconciled with
everybody, you know, his family, even his first wife, and he is a mensch, as
you say, walking through Princeton. Kids come up and ask for help with their
math homework and give him brownies if he's going to help with the homework.
And he does it. Some poor journalism student at Princeton High School is
flunking, and the teacher says, `Anybody who gets an interview with Albert
Einstein'll get an A,' and so Einstein gives the kid an interview. So
Einstein becomes the kindly old guy when the trick-or-treaters come around, he
takes out his violin and plays songs for them. And he's, you know--one of the
great things, you go to Princeton, everybody tells you the tale of `Yes, my
father told me once, he saw Einstein walking on the street, and Einstein
explained some math problem to him.'
DAVIES: You know, Einstein outlived his second wife Elsa, and when he
eventually died he was quickly cremated as he'd instructed, but you have to
tell us this bizarre story of what happened to his brain.
Mr. ISAACSON: Well, you know, he's a humble guy. He did not want to be an
icon. He didn't want to have a big grave or huge funeral, so he gets
cremated. But this pathologist at the Princeton Hospital, Thomas Harvey, sort
of a sweet, spacy pathologist, decides to keep his brain and puts it in a
Tupperware container in a Costa cola cooler, a red cooler, and Einstein's son
who's around, Hans Albert, and they're all, you know grieving for Albert
Einstein, when he finds out the next day at Princeton School--the teacher
says, `Anybody know some news?' and one girl raises her hand and says, `Yes,
Albert Einstein died,' and the teacher says, `That's right.' Then some kid in
the back of the class who doesn't usually talk raises his hand and says, `And
my dad's got his brain,' and everybody, you know, is shocked.
But when it comes out that this pathologist has taken the brain, nobody knew
who had the rights to the brain, and this pathologist sort of kept it for, you
know, I think, 30 years or so, driving around with it and keeping it and
letting researchers look at parts of it. It's sort of macabre, but it's, you
know, it's part of that whole amazing life of--even after his life, Albert
Einstein continues to be fascinating.
DAVIES: You know people think of--you know, Einstein is a metaphor for kind
of unachievable brilliance--I mean, impossible genius.
Mr. ISAACSON: Mm-hmm.
DAVIES: What do you think of that view of him and his work?
Mr. ISAACSON: I think the great thing to realize is that Einstein wasn't,
say, smarter than Max Planck or Lorentz or some of the other people at the
time. Or Pontryagin, all these mathematicians. But he could think more
creatively. He was more willing to think out of the box, to use a cliche. To
think, `Well maybe we don't have to be boxed in by what Newton said about
space and time.' So it wasn't he had some unattainable intelligence. It was
that he was a little bit more creative, more willing to defy convention, and
to think a little bit differently from everybody else.
DAVIES: Well, Walter Isaacson, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. ISAACSON: Thank you. It was really a pleasure.
DAVIES: Biographer Walter Isaacson. His new book is "Einstein: His Life and
Coming up, John Powers on the film "Children of Men." This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: John Powers on the DVD release of "Children of Men"
DAVE DAVIES, host:
Alfonso Cuaron's post-apocalyptic thriller "Children of Men" opened last
Christmas during a flurry of movie releases. It's now out on DVD, and critic
John Powers says it may well be remembered long after last year's big hits are
Mr. JOHN POWERS: A couple of Saturdays ago, I spent nine hours watching "The
Coast of Utopia," Tom Stoppard's theatrical trilogy about 19th century Russian
intellectuals. Mired in a backward, tyrannical country, these characters
dreamed of creating a free and equal society. And what struck me about
watching them is how astonishingly old-fashioned they now seem. Although most
people in the world are freer and more prosperous than ever before, today's
imagination is obsessed with dystopia, society as an oppressive hell.
There's no more striking example of this than "Children of Men," just out on
DVD. Set in a near future that seems terribly familiar, Alfonso Cuaron's
movie offers a thrilling and harrowing vision of modern society as a war zone.
The year is 2027, and most of the world is post-apocalyptic. Mushroom clouds
have bloomed over the major cities, the siege of Seattle is in its thousandth
000nd day. But Britain goes on, a nation filled with terrorist bombs,
soldiers guarding the streets, and camps filled with refugees known as fugees.
And here's the really bad news: Women throughout the world have stopped
bearing children. There hasn't been a baby for nearly 20 years. Nobody feels
the despair of all this more than Theo, played by Clive Owen. Theo's a
dead-eyed burnt-out case until he's grabbed by a rebel group, the Fishes, led
by his ex-wife. That's Julianne Moore. She wants him to smuggle a young
black fugee named Kee out of the country. Kee's very special, you see. She's
Of course, getting Kee to freedom won't be easy, and the first thing to be
said about "Children of Men" is that it's filled with jaw-droppingly good
action sequences--an explosion at a cafe, an attack on a car, a climatic
battle scene that ups the ante on "Saving Private Ryan." These scenes contain
some of the greatest shots in movie history, shots so astonishing that the DVD
includes a featurette on how Cuaron and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki
manage to pull them off.
Yet what makes the movie brilliant is more than technique. Working in a near
documentary style, Cuaron immerses us in a grungy, densely textured,
futuristic reality unlike any I've seen on film. He doesn't recycle "Blade
Runner"'s rainy LA. He doesn't trot out bombastically corny World War II
cliches--you know, the jack-booted soldiers and Fuhrer-style leaders you found
in "V for Vendetta." Instead he offers us a lived-in world that echoes what
already feels familiar--urban terror, Guantanamo-style prisons, panic about
immigrants and a proliferation of sex and cults that can actually be kind of
funny. Here, Theo talks to his friend Jasper, a doper-political cartoonist
played by Michael Caine sporting shoulder-length gray hair.
(Soundbite of "Children of Men" )
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. MICHAEL CAINE: (as Jasper) Any girls?
Mr. CLIVE OWEN: (as Theo) No.
Mr. CAINE: (as Jasper) What about the one we had lunch with? Lauren.
Mr. OWEN: (as Theo) Lorna. That was ages ago.
Mr. CAINE: (as Jasper) Well, I liked her. What happened?
Mr. OWEN: (as Theo) She decided to renounce.
Mr. CAINE: (as Jasper) Renouncism? Are those the ones that kneel down for a
month for salvation?
Mr. OWEN: (as Theo) No, they're the repenters. The renouncers flagellate
themselves for the forgiveness of humanity.
Mr. CAINE: (as Jasper) Oh, right. Dating ain't want it used to be, is it,
(End of soundbite)
Mr. POWERS: "Children of Men" is one of three movies that came out last year
from Mexico's so-called three amigos: Cuaron, "Babel"'s Alejandro Gonzalez
Inarritu and Guillermo del Toro, who made "Pan's Labyrinth." What they share
is an outsider's perspective, a keen eye for social reality rarely found in
the work of film makers from El Norte.
Happily, Cuaron is too talented to bludgeon us with dead-on political ideas.
While the movie does make a stink about Baghdad, the war on terror and
building fences along our borders, it also alludes to Guernica and Aung San
Suu Kyi from Myanmar. And its central problem, the infertility of women,
suggests a world so far out of joint that even the French couldn't blame it on
George W. Bush. That said, it's not completely accidental that the world's
potential savior, Kee, should be an immigrant refugee demonized by those in
power. There's a metaphor here that Cuaron obviously takes to heart.
If you think of the defining modern dystopian tales, from Zamyatin's "We" to
Terry Gilliam's "Brazil," they're nearly always steeped in defeatism. "1984"
ends with Winston Smith loving Big Brother. Cuaron leaves us with something
far different. For all the bleakness that surrounds him, Theo's story is a
journey from hopelessness to hope. As he protects Kee, his dead eyes come
back to life. He wakes up and becomes willing to fight--even die--for
something that isn't all fear, terrorism and state-sponsored barbed wire. And
though "Children of Men" doesn't tell us what will happen once Kee makes her
way to freedom, that doesn't matter. It's enough that she promises a better
future. She's bringing newness into the world. Through her, Theo--and
we--catch a very brief glimpse of the coast of Utopia.
DAVIES: John Powers is film critic for Vogue. You can find podcasts of FRESH
AIR at freshair.npr.org.
DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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