Einstein: Renowned Genius, Tabloid Dream

ByABC News via logo
April 10, 2007, 9:09 AM

April 10, 2007 — -- Photographers camped out in front of his home, hounded him with endless questions and forced him into hiding to escape the public eye.

He wasn't a Hollywood actor, but Albert Einstein is arguably the only celebrity scholar in American history and the subject of the new biography "Einstein: His Life and Universe," by acclaimed author Walter Isaacson.

Isaacson was managing editor of Time magazine in 2000 and was largely responsible for choosing Einstein as Time's "Person of the Century." Einstein's great scientific advances, relativity and quantum theory, factored into the decision, but Isaacson said the scientist's personality also won him over.

"Einstein's science set the groundwork for all the technological advances of 20th century. His fingerprints are on everything from the laser to the atom bomb to the microchip to space travel," he said. "Second, he embodies the notion of people who worship freedom -- freedom of thought and oppression -- whether that of the Stalinists or Hitler. He believed that there is a connection between freedom and creativity -- you couldn't have creative or imaginative thinkers without a free mind."

"Einstein" is drawn from a wealth of his personal correspondence, including 130 private letters that have never been seen before. From them, Isaacson got a sense of the man behind the scientist.

"Einstein is often seen as a loner. He worked in a solitary way. But he was not a loner -- he had lots of close friends and he loved intellectual engagement," Isaacson said. "He was not someone who did a lot of experiments. He preferred imagining things in his mind."

There are a lot of myths about Einstein as a dumb kid who turned out to be a genius. But Isaacson writes that Einstein's slow start as a child actually contributed to his genius by fostering a learning style that benefited him later.

"The good news for us parents to take away is that Einstein was no Einstein as a kid. One headmaster expelled him for being too rebellious," he said. "But that slow verbal learning taught him how to think in pictures instead. He thought, 'What would it be able to ride alongside a light beam?' And that led him to ultimately rejecting the notion of Newton -- that time is constant."

Einstein's somewhat troubled personal relationships -- an illegitimate daughter, a failed marriage, multiple affairs -- would have had the tabloids reeling today. His first marriage, to Mileva Maric, ended in divorce. But at the time Einstein couldn't afford a divorce, so he and his wife struck an unusual bargain.

"Mileva Maric had been a physics student at Polytechnic -- the only girl in his class. She did help him by checking math on the relativity papers. And when they got divorced in 1919, he couldn't afford it, so he offered her the Nobel Prize money he was sure he would one day win for his work on relativity," Isaacson explained.

"She took the deal, but didn't get the money until 1922."