As you read this, a small spacecraft is orbiting 400 miles above your head, busily collecting data. Using four incredibly precise gyroscopes - the most perfect spheres ever created by humans - the Gravity Probe B is looking for conclusive evidence that the mass of the Earth actually warps space and time.
The proof, if it's found, won't be dramatic, just a slight alteration in the angle of the gyros' spinning axes - a mere 0.000011 of a degree, or about the width of a human hair viewed from a quarter of a mile away.
It took NASA and dozens of scientists decades to conceive, build and launch the Gravity Probe B. It took one man - Albert Einstein - to create the reason for doing so. The probe is an attempt to determine whether Einstein's 1916 theory of general relativity is correct: Mass, energy and momentum cause space and time to curve, with gravity part of the result.
Of course, you don't have to understand relativity to know who Einstein is. He's a global icon. His cherubic face, crinkly eyes and electrified white hair are instantly recognizable around the world. Does anyone doubt that Einstein was a scientific genius in his time, in any time?
Never mind that most of us can't really explain why.
"People cheer me because they all understand me and they cheer you because nobody understands you," joked comedian Charlie Chaplin to Einstein as crowds cheered their arrival at the 1931 Hollywood premiere of Chaplin's classic film "City Lights."
Over the years, many have tried to understand Einstein, with varying degrees of success and accessibility. His life and work have been parsed, analyzed and chronicled by scores of biographers. You can now add two more: Walter Isaacson, author of "Einstein: His Life and Universe" and, with "Einstein," Jurgen Neffe. Both efforts are worthy, but for different reasons.
Isaacson's is likely to draw the most attention, especially in the United States. A former managing editor at Time and the author of best-selling biographies of Henry Kissinger (1992) and Benjamin Franklin (2004), Isaacson comes to the task of explaining Einstein with impressive credentials, which he further burnishes in his acknowledgments by thanking no fewer than 12 distinguished physicists (including one Nobel laureate) for helping him get the science right, plus many other literary lights for their contributions.
But Isaacson has also done his homework. He copiously references previous books, studies, papers, articles, even Einstein's love letters to his wives and mistresses. The result is a full and generally sympathetic portrayal of a singular man.
"I am a completely isolated man," Einstein once said, "and though everybody knows me, there are very few people who really know me."
Indeed. Though Isaacson's labors are broadly revealing, they are not exactly transcendent. For the most part, this is a standard chronological biography, beginning with Einstein's birth in Munich, Germany, in 1879, ending with his death (from a burst abdominal aneurysm) in Princeton, N.J., at age 76.
Isaacson alternates chapters recounting Einstein's turbulent personal life (much of it due to the great man himself) with chapters describing how Einstein developed his revolutionary theories about the nature of nature.
It's here that Isaacson's declared reliance upon help from physicists like Brian Greene and Murray Gell-Mann pays off. The physics are concisely explained, and with a few exceptions fairly easy to understand. The only equation to grapple with is Einstein's most famous: E(equals)mc2. And the chapter about 1905 - Einstein's annus mirabilis or miracle year in which he produced five seminal papers that changed science and history - is a marvel of insight and brevity.
Isaacson clearly esteems Einstein, who was a far more complicated man than his pop star image. He was easy to admire from afar, but difficult to embrace. He could be warm and friendly or cold and cruel in equal measures.
"His heart never bleeds, and he moves through life with mild enjoyment and emotional indifference," said Leopold Infeld, a colleague. "His extreme kindness and decency are thoroughly impersonal and seem to come from another planet."
As a husband and father, Einstein was a mess. Engaged in the former, he was apathetic and philandering - faults he recognized, bemoaned and continued throughout much of his life.
Physics was first and foremost for Einstein. He was driven by a powerful and enduring curiosity to understand the underlying forces of nature. It was all he really wanted to do, and he frequently commented that the only things he truly desired in life were paper, pencil and a quiet place to think. The last thing he did, lying on his deathbed, was scribble a line of numbers and symbols, an equation that he hoped would help lead to a unified field theory, a single explanation of the laws of the universe.
Jurgen Neffe's biography was first published two years ago in Germany, where it was a best-seller. It contains most of the same information, including many of the same anecdotes. And, it's shorter.
Like Isaacson, Jeffe is well-equipped to be Einstein's biographer. He's an award-winning journalist and a science historian. He's also German, which arguably provides him with a deeper insight into Einstein who, despite disavowing his native country for political and religious reasons, was still Teutonic at heart.
(Even after many years in America, Einstein never really learned to speak English. His adopted vocabulary reportedly consisted of only a few hundred words. He preferred to speak German, and only hired assistants who could.)
Speaking the language clearly helped Neffe, who went so far as to track down copies of Aaron Bernstein's 20-volume "Popular Books on Natural Science," a series Einstein read as a boy. They were fundamental to his early understanding of phenomena like light and gravity. Isaacson refers to the series too, but Neffe actually read the books, and in their original German.
Surprisingly, Neffe's biography reads more like an American novel. The language is fresh and lively - a nod to Jeffe's English translator, Shelley Frisch. The book jumps back and forth across Einstein's life, opening with pathologist Thomas Harvey's well-intentioned but clearly illegal removal of Einstein's brain during the 1955 autopsy.
(Harvey believed scientific examinations of the brain might reveal the physical nature or origin of Einstein's genius. He would keep the brain hidden away - in beer coolers or closets - for decades, doling out dissected chunks to different researchers. Eventually, in 2005, what was left was returned to Princeton University. Of the various studies conducted upon Einstein's neural tissue, none would make any definitive findings. Einstein's brain was, for all intents and purposes, pretty ordinary - at least in biological terms.)
Jeffe arranges the telling of Einstein's life thematically, clumping events and stories by ideas, such as "Squaring the Light: Why Einstein Had to Discover the Theory of Relativity," "A Jew Named Albert: His God Was a Principle" and "From Barbaria to Dollaria: Einstein's America."
The resulting portrayal is more pointed and less affectionate than Isaacson's. Jeffe draws in starker terms the numerous contradictions of the man: Einstein upheld the ideals of freedom and fraternity, except, apparently, for women. He carried moral authority, but was rumored to have syphilis. He was an ardent pacifist (except when it came to Nazis) but also supported the development of the atomic bomb. He doubted religion, but believed in God. As a young man, he helped upend classical physics and rewrite our understanding of the universe; as an old man, he used his fame and authority to block the emerging science of quantum mechanics, which he found incomprehensibly silly.
A complete understanding of Albert Einstein, both the man and the scientist, is probably impossible. One thousand biographies couldn't do the job. But these two books are, relatively speaking, pretty good attempts.
EXCERPTS FROM "EINSTEIN: HIS LIFE AND UNIVERSE"
If he did not have the electrified halo of hair and those piercing eyes, would he still have become science's preeminent poster boy? Suppose, as a thought experiment, that he had looked like a Max Planck or a Niels Bohr.
Would he have remained in their reputational orbit, that of a mere scientific genius? Or would he still have made the leap into the pantheon inhabited only by Aristotle, Galileo and Newton?
The latter, I believe, is the case. His work had a very personal character, a stamp that made it recognizably his, the way a Picasso is recognizably a Picasso. He made imaginative leaps and discerned great principles through thought experiments rather than by methodical inductions based on experimental data. The theories that resulted were at times astonishing, mysterious and counterintuitive, yet they contained notions that could capture the popular imagination: the relativity of space and time, E(equals)mc2, the bending of light beams and the warping of space.
EXCERPTS FROM "EINSTEIN"
Einstein was one of the most renowned people ever to walk the planet.
Certainly no other scientist has come close to his degree of fame and mythic transfiguration. His seemingly paradoxical nature - bourgeois and Bohemian, superman and scalawag - lent him an air of mystery. He could reconcile discrepant views of the world, but he was a walking contradiction. Einstein polarized his fellow man like no other. He was a friend to some, an enemy to others, narcissistic and slovenly, easygoing and rebellious, philanthropic and autistic, citizen of the world and hermit, a pacifist whose research was used for military ends. ... Thanks to the power of his imagination, he could project his way into the essence of electrons just as well as into the destiny of distant stars. When it came to people who were close to him, however, especially his sons and the problems that bedeviled them, he had not a trace of empathy. He could be downright brutal, but could show deep compassion for the poor, weak and persecuted. He alternated between kind sage and incorrigible mule - an egocentric loner with a sense of responsibility for all of mankind.
- Scott LaFee