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His Life and Universe

By Walter Isaacson
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Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson

In an attempt to understand what motivated this peerless scientist, Walter Isaacson’s insightful biography (2008) delves into Einstein’s personal life. And, as it turns out, there are many factors that shaped Einstein – his rebellious nature, his fervent curiosity and his commitment to individual freedom.

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Einstein’s secular family, outsider status and unusual early development shaped his character.

We all know that Einstein achieved extraordinary things over the course of his illustrious professional life. But how did it all begin?

Einstein was born into an independent-minded family that valued learning. His father, for instance, gave his son a compass when the boy was four-years-old and sick in bed. Upon examining it, the young Einstein started trembling and grew cold with excitement. This experience instilled in him a sense of scientific wonder that would last throughout his entire life.

Around the same time, his mother arranged violin lessons, which proved pivotal. The instrument became a constant companion throughout Einstein’s life; later, he would puzzle out complex problems while playing music.

The visit of a medical student, Max Talmud, to Einstein’s childhood home was another formative experience. Talmud introduced the future scientist to the works of Aaron Bernstein and Kant, and to geometry.

Einstein’s unusual mental development also played a key role in shaping the man he would become: He was slow to develop linguistically and he didn’t ace his university mathematics courses. And yet, by the age of 12 he had mastered applied arithmetic. By 13, he was reading Kant.

Later, Einstein reflected that these developmental irregularities allowed him to preserve a childlike wonder about those things that adults took for granted, things like space and time.

Additionally, Einstein’s Jewish background made him an outsider in Germany, and this sense of otherness proved formative. Although his teachers were liberal, he suffered anti-Semitic attacks from other children. As a result, he developed a detached aloofness, which may have contributed to his willingness later to break off from the scientific herd.

At the time, he also developed a lasting contempt for authority. The young Einstein was such a persistent classroom rebel – he despised the rote drilling and formal authority that characterized the German school system – that he got himself kicked out of school.

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