Decades after his death, Albert Einstein remains an iconic – if enigmatic – figure in both the academic world and pop culture.
His image – the signature mop of white hair and bushy moustache – is an instantly recognizable one but the man himself is a little less black and white. He was seen by some as the embodiment of genius; by others, as an aloof daydreamer.
He was a celebrated thinker and celebrity scientist, of sorts - the creator of the Theory of Relativity and winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics known for his mischievous nature and childlike curiosity. Yet, his critics labeled him a misogynist, curmudgeon and a passive-aggressive parent.
I read a lot of biographies and books on leadership. Einstein was a scientific leader recognized globally but after reading more about him, I would not hold him up as someone to emulate from a leadership perspective.
There are more than 20 books about the legendary physicist, but – simply titled “Einstein” - by Jurgen Neffe (translated by Shelley Frisch) may be the most in-depth and informative. Neffe holds a doctorate in Biochemistry from Aachen University, the largest technical university in Germany. He ran the federal office of the Max Planck Society, whose namesake was a Nobel Prize winner in Physics, in Berlin.
Neffe is a recipient of the Egon Erwin Kisch Award, the most prestigious award for print journalism in Germany. Having been disappointed after reading all previous books about Einstein, Neffe said he wrote his own biography of Einstein the way he would want to read it. Even as a scientist, Neffe said one of the books was difficult to understand. That’s why the only formula you will see in Neffe’s book is E = mc 2. Other theoretical descriptions of Einstein’s work are written in a narrative format, so they are easily understood by a non-scientific person.
Neffe also approached the biography thematically, as opposed to the more traditional chronological outline. While I appreciated the depth with which Neffe covered the women in Einstein’s life, it was not always clear what year it was or where in the world the story was taking place. The same was true in another chapter of the book.
Michael Dirda of The Washington Post noted the sheer amount of material Neffe had to master to write this book. He needed to know 20th century German history, the development of physics since Galileo and the works of contemporary psychologists and philosophers on the nature of genius and media celebrity.
Neffe is also generally perceived by critics like Dirda as having worked harder than previous authors to learn about his subject and his subject matter. For example, it is believed that Einstein was heavily influenced by Aaron Bernstein’s 20-volume Popular Books on Natural Sciences. Neffe actually read the entire set as preparation, and cited those books by volume and page several times in his own book.
Neffe wrote about how, for Einstein, growing up alongside his family’s engineering business and spending his childhood around technical equipment influenced his later thought experiments. While another Einstein biographer mentioned that Einstein’s favorite composer was Mozart, Neffe was even more specific, citing “Sonata for Piano and Violin in E Minor as Einstein’s favorite piece.
Neffe described young Einstein as a man of unexpected, and sometimes unlikable, contradictions and polarities. As a student, he got a classmate pregnant, sent her away to have the baby and then made the woman give the baby up for adoption. He saw both his wives as caretakers. His first wife gave up a promising scientific career to fulfill this role of caretaker only to be mistreated by Einstien. He rarely spent time with their mentally ill younger child, Eduard, whom he dismissed as degenerate.
Einstein slept a lot - 10 hours a night - and took daily naps. He loved publicity and women. Critic Lee Smolin of The New York Review of Books said he thought there might be a difference in how men and women experienced Einstein. The men in his life – namely, his friends and his sons - saw him as detached. Women, however, found him engaging, since they were attracted to his masculine good looks. Smolin wondered whether there might be an erotic component to a person with scientific and mathematical creativity.
One thing I found fascinating was that Einstein’s English vocabulary was no more than a few hundred words. He was basically incomprehensible in English. All his assistants at Princeton had to speak German to communicate with him.
In 1940, Einstein was closely monitored by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. Neffe’s German perspective on this was that Einstein “shed any illusions about a freedom-loving America” and spent his last years increasingly isolated from colleagues and countrymen. Neffe concluded that Einstein, who died in 1955, peaked professionally in the 1920s after winning the Nobel Prize in Physics. He wrote that Einstein never completed generalizing special relativity; his “star power” kept his reputation in the spotlight after that.
While I thought this book was well-written - or at least “chock-full” of nuggets about Einstein - it was a book that required a lot of effort to finish reading. Neffe did a good of describing the thought experiments in layman’s terms, but it was the story line that was labor-intensive for me as the reader.
He was a fascinating public figure with a brilliant mind, but Einstein would not, overall, have made a good leader. Intelligence, charisma and a curiosity that inspires exploration, learning and out-of-the-box thinking certainly are all good leadership characteristics. But Einstein – who perhaps was too consumed by the spotlight and too inconsistent in his mannerisms and treatment of others – illustrates that it takes more than a few positive qualities to make an effective leader.
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