Mathematics & Science

The best books on Einstein

recommended by Walter Isaacson

Interview by Anna Blundy

The former editor of Time magazine and CEO of CNN talks to us about the life and work of Albert Einstein, including the bet with his wife that left her with his Nobel Prize money and him with a divorce.

  • 1

    Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré’s Maps
    by Peter Galison

  • 2

    The Fabric of the Cosmos
    by Brian Greene

  • 3

    Evolution of Physics
    by Albert Einstein and Leopold Infeld

  • 4

    Einstein’s Dreams
    by Alan Lightman

  • 5

    Einstein in Love
    by Dennis Overbye

The former editor of Time magazine and CEO of CNN talks to us about the life and work of Albert Einstein, including the bet with his wife that left her with his Nobel Prize money and him with a divorce.

Walter Isaacson

The former editor of Time magazine and CEO of CNN has written the seminal work on Einstein’s life and theory. He tells us Einstein bet his wife he’d win the Nobel Prize for his 1905 work and promised her the prize money in return for a divorce. ‘She takes a week to calculate the odds...and she takes the bet. He didn’t win until 1921 but he did give her the money and she bought three apartment buildings in Zurich.’

Save for later

Your first book is Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré’s Maps.

This is an absolutely brilliant investigation into two related discoveries that deal with how you define what is simultaneous. Poincaré helped us get to the notion of time zones and longitude in the 19th century. Einstein was working as a patent clerk in 1905, because he couldn’t get an academic job, and Galison shows how he was looking at a lot of applications for ways to synchronise clocks because the Swiss had gone on standard time zones and, because they were very Swiss, they wanted the clock to strike seven in Bern at the exact same time as it struck seven in Zurich.

“He had a religious-like reverence for the concept of a creator, even though he did not believe in a personal God.”

In order to synchronise the clocks you have to send a signal between them and that signal travels at the speed of light. So Einstein had to visualise how you define what is simultaneous by using a light signal. He realised that what is simultaneous to two people standing still is different if one person is in motion. And that is how he came to his theory of relativity. He realised that as you approach the speed of light time flows more slowly. The book is a great piece of research looking at the patent applications that Einstein saw and showing his thinking. Galison tried to uncover the various patents for devices that would synchronise clocks. This is a triumph of research combined with brilliant conceptual insights.

Your next book is Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos.

Brian Greene is one of the developers of string theory, the pioneer of string theory, and what he’s doing is he’s aiming at Einstein’s great unresolved quest for a theory that ties all the forces of the universe together. In The Fabric of the Cosmos he takes Einstein’s fundamental discoveries of special relativity and general relativity and puts them in their historical context. He starts with Newton’s theory of gravity and helps us understand all the developments that led to Einstein’s theory that space and time create a four-dimensional fabric that is related to gravity. This is the clearest explanation of Newton and Einstein available, and Greene does it with a great sense of humour and wonderful visual thought experiments. He wrestles with the question Newton asked about whether a bucket of water spinning in an absolutely empty universe would show any signs of inerti would the water spin up against the sides? From that he is able to walk us through the great issues of gravity and space.

Would the bucket show signs of inertia?

Einstein and Greene think it would, yes. The fabric of the cosmos is there even in an empty universe.

The Evolution of Physics, by Albert Einstein and Leopold Infeld.

Infeld was a poor Jewish refugee to America when he met Einstein. Infeld needed money and so Einstein said he would write a history of physics with him. Infeld was a great writer and Einstein was a great physicist and this book gives a history of physics in a way that helps you to understand Einstein’s great insights. Deeply woven into this is his idea that there must be laws of the universe that are invariable and it shows why Einstein was opposing quantum theory and quantum mechanics which say things happen at a sub-atomic level purely by chance.

But isn’t quantum theory still … valid?

Yes. Very valid. Einstein was wrong in resisting it. Or I guess I should say it seems like he was probably wrong. He had deep philosophical qualms that drove his scientific criticisms.

Get the weekly Five Books newsletter

He was afraid of uncertainty?

He thought that God would not play dice with the universe. He had a religious-like reverence for the concept of a creator, even though he did not believe in a personal God, and this is reflected in this book as well.

Now to Einstein’s Dreams.

This is a work of fiction that weaves in the whimsy of Einstein’s days as a patent clerk in Switzerland and the types of dreams he may have had. They are little fables that come from his dreams and that relate the theory of relativity to real life. What makes this little book so good is that, as Tom Stoppard does, Lightman understands the science as he ties it into a literary piece of whimsy.

What kinds of dreams does he have?

Well, time-travel dreams. A man is plucked from the present and put somewhere else and he thinks: ‘If I touch anything will the universe turn out differently? If I go back and kill my father will I never be born?’ There is also a dream in which time flows backwards instead of forwards. The whimsy is good and so is the physics.

Einstein in Love?

This is a great piece of writing and of research about Einstein’s relationship with his first wife who served as his sounding-board in the miracle year of 1905 when he discovers special relativity and lays the groundwork for quantum theory. Mileva Maric was a physics student at Zurich Polytechnic, and when she and Einstein met they fell madly in love. Overbye wrote one of the first books to come out after the huge trove of letters between Einstein and Maric became available. He shows their passionate love but also their shared joy in physics. He helps us to assess how much she helped in the development of Einstein’s theories.

How much did she help?

Well, she didn’t come up with any of the concepts, but she was a sounding-board and she checked the maths and the proofs. When the passionate relationship exploded and Einstein wanted a divorce he couldn’t afford the money Maric wanted to raise their two boys. So Einstein says to her that one day he’ll win the Nobel Prize for his 1905 work and if she gives him a divorce he’ll give her the prize money when he wins. She takes a week to calculate the odds and consult other scientists, but she is a good scientist herself and she takes the bet. He didn’t win until 1921 but he did give her the money and she bought three apartment buildings in Zurich.

Interview by Anna Blundy

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Support Five Books

Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you've enjoyed this interview, please support us by donating a small amount, or by buying some of our most recommended books from Amazon. Since we are enrolled in their affiliate program, we receive a small percentage of any product you buy, at no extra cost to you.

Walter Isaacson

The former editor of Time magazine and CEO of CNN has written the seminal work on Einstein’s life and theory. He tells us Einstein bet his wife he’d win the Nobel Prize for his 1905 work and promised her the prize money in return for a divorce. ‘She takes a week to calculate the odds...and she takes the bet. He didn’t win until 1921 but he did give her the money and she bought three apartment buildings in Zurich.’