John Updike reviews Walter Isaacson’s new biography of Einstein in The New Yorker, from which this excerpt on why a job in the Swiss patent office was actually a good thing for the young genius:
“Had he been consigned instead to the job of an assistant to a professor,” Isaacson points out, “he might have felt compelled to churn out safe publications and be overly cautious in challenging accepted notions.” Special relativity has a flavor of the patent office; one of the theory’s charms for the fascinated public was the practical apparatus of its exposition, involving down-to-earth images like passing trains equipped with reflecting mirrors on their ceilings, and measuring rods that magically shrink with speed from the standpoint of a stationary observer, and clocks that slow as they accelerate — counterintuitive effects graspable with little more math than plane geometry.
Einstein would later say, upon taking his first professorship (at Zurich), that in doing so he had become “…an official member of the guild of whores.” So much for academe. This review moves the book up on my list (and I’ve always thought no biographer would ever equal Abraham Pais’ Subtle Is the Lord — maybe Isaacson will change my mind). The book is Einstein: His Life and Universe (Simon & Schuster, 2007), and you can read Updike’s review here. Thanks to Larry Klaes for the pointer to this one.