Einstein: His Life and Universe

Walter Isaacson, Biographer
Kindle eBook, Simon & Schuster, April 2007


Ron Howard, Director
Creators Kenneth Biller, Noah Pink

10-chapter TV series, 2017, based on Isaacson’s biography



–Book and Movie Review by Guest Reviewer Terry Rankin


Albert Einstein (1879-1955) was born on March 14, 1879. Exactly 139 years later, Stephen Hawking (1942-2018) died March 14, 2018. I suspect both would appreciate the mathematically resonant harmony of that timing. 139 is a ‘happy number:’[*]

Starting with any positive integer, replace the number by the sum of the squares of its digits in base-ten, and repeat the process until the number either equals 1 (where it will stay), or it loops endlessly in a cycle that does not include 1. Those numbers for which this process ends in 1 are happy numbers, while those that do not end in 1 are unhappy numbers (or sad numbers).[†]

139 is also a very interesting prime:[‡]

139 is the 34th prime number. It is a twin prime with 137. Because 141 is a semiprime, 139 is a Chen prime. 139 is the smallest prime before a prime gap of length 10.

This number is the sum of five consecutive prime numbers (19 + 23 + 29 + 31 + 37).

It is the smallest factor of 64079. It is also the smallest factor of the first nine terms of the Euclid–Mullin sequence, making it the tenth term.

139 is … a strictly non-palindromic number.

Einstein and Hawking rank among the greatest intellects in human history. For both, the semiotic lingua franca of physics—mathematics—was as natural as German and English vernacular. They also had the same IQ, 160, and both died at 76 years of age.

Speaking at a memorial of Einstein at UNESCO house in Paris on December 13, 1965, physicist and head of the Manhattan Project during 1942-1946, which gave the world its first thermonuclear weapons, J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967), a colleague and close friend of Einstein’s, commented on the man, “He was almost wholly without sophistication and wholly without worldliness …. There was always with him a wonderful purity at once childlike and profoundly stubborn.”[§]

Both Isaacson’s book and Howard’s TV series vividly capture the purity, innocence, and stubbornness of Einstein, as well as his genius. Based on his biography, Isaacson earns a writing credit in the production, the first of its kind by the National Geographic Channel (NGC). This brilliant telling of the story of Einstein’s life is visually stunning and impeccably performed. The book invokes the formal maths, but not so deeply as to confound readers beyond basic algebra. Its dramatization brings the Einstein era vividly and palpably to a living presence with stirring insight into the inner being of the man and his relationships with family and loved ones.

The two actors who play the young and the elder Einstein deliver exquisite performances. English poet, musician, and actor Johnny Flynn conveys precisely the right balance of the young Einstein’s sprezzatura with the playful elder scientist and activist embodied by Australian Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush’s characteristically powerful interpretation. Each artist incisively captures Einstein’s uniquely nuanced struggles with relationships in the scientist’s callow youth as well as in the dotage of his autumn years. The same intellectual brilliance entwines the two, manifest in the genius’s enthusiastically insatiable appetite for mystery and theory which, as Einstein himself lamented, somehow always elude full, final, certain resolution.

One love of his life and his first wife, Mileva Marić Einstein, profoundly influenced the work of Einstein. A brilliant and generally overlooked scientist in her own right, Marić was the only woman at Zurich Polytechnic among Einstein’s fellow students. She would be the second woman to finish the program of study in Mathematics and Physics. Einstein and Marić married in 1903 and divorced in February 1919. English actress Samantha Colley deservedly received rave reviews and nomination for a WhatsOnStage Best Supporting Actress award. Her sultry portrayal of Mileva’s dark and troubled soul was crucial to the story and Colley’s captivating performance is magnificent. in June 1919, Einstein married the other love of his life, his cousin Elsa Lowenthal, a divorcee with whom he began a relationship during the final tumultuous years of his marriage to Mileva. English actress Emily Watson, twice an Oscar nominee, brings Elsa’s genteel subtlety, patience, devotion, and fondness into Einstein’s world of fame and notoriety with just the right persona of strained but gracious tolerance of the persistent strife with Mileva. Watson’s performance represents the finest in dramatic artistry, only rarely found in television productions.

All of this is not to suggest that Isaacson’s book shouldn’t be read—on the contrary, the story in writing engages the reader’s imagination and intellect with equal ease and challenge. He achieves this without the least bit of analytic or mathematical intimidation, as one might expect, but incorporates just enough of the scientist’s genius at work in those arcane domains to endear and engage the reader with compelling allure for the man, his mind, and his science.

Indeed, my advice would be to read the book first, or in parallel with the TV anthology. If read after watching the series, it may seem dry or tedious, as the dramatic presentation so deeply engages and thoroughly saturates the viewer’s sense of presence within the story. Compelling as Isaacson’s pellucid prose surely is, the book may lose much of its enchantment and power having previously seen its dramatization so superbly done.

Einstein was raised in a non-observant Ashkenazi Jewish family and attended Catholic elementary school. He jokingly described himself as a “deeply religious nonbeliever” and when asked if he believed in an afterlife, he replied “No. And one life is enough for me.”[**]

As death approached from an aortic aneurysm surgically repaired once before in 1948, Einstein refused another surgery, replying on the evening before his death, “I want to go when I want. It is tasteless to prolong life artificially. I have done my share, it is time to go. I will do it elegantly.”[††]

The elegance of Einstein’s life and death were surpassed only by that of his mind and its creative expression.


[P.S. National Geographic has continued the Genius series, producing a 2nd season (2017) about Pablo Picasso, starring Antonio Banderas in the title role. A forthcoming 3rd season is in progress for 2018, with Gothic novelist and radical pioneering feminist Mary Shelley as the subject.]

[*] Wikipedia contributors, “Happy number,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Happy_number&oldid=840554440 (accessed May 24, 2018).

[†] 139: 12+ 32 + 92 = 91; 92 + 12 = 82; 82 + 22 = 68; 62 + 82 = 100; 12 + 02 + 02 = 1.

[‡] Ibid., “139 (number),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/
(accessed May 24, 2018).

[§] Full text of Oppenheimer’s address appears in Martin Sherwin, “Oppenheimer On Einstein,” The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: Einstein and Peace, March 1979, 36-38, https://books.google.com/books?id=7goAAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA36#v=onepage&q&f=false.

[**] Isaacson, Walter (2008). Einstein: His Life and Universe. New York: Simon and Schuster, p. 461.

[††] Cohen, J.R.; Graver, L.M. (November 1995), “The ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm of Albert Einstein,” Surgery, Gynecology & Obstetrics, 170 (5): 455–8, PMID 2183375.