Tale of the Light Beam-Rider

A wonderful, rounded portrait of the ever-inspiring Einstein personality.

                                                                                                                                                             – The New York Times

A Review of the Book “Einstein: His Life and Universe ” (2007) by Walter Isaccson, Simon and Schultzer.


Einstein saga; Intuitive rider; Natural theorist; Heart of a genius; Sage of science

The Einstein Saga

Most of us are driven by history and shaped by the environment. But there are a few who make history and shape the environment. Albert Einstein is one of them. There are many biographies of Einstein. But most of them are written by scientists and focus mainly on the scientific achievements of Einstein. Here comes the uniqueness of this biography under review, which brings out vividly the non-scientific dimensions of Einstein’s personality, the warm, creative and compassionate human being behind his formidable scientific reputation. The author of the book, Walter Isaccson, is not a scientist but a top media professional, a former chairman of CNN and the managing editor of Time magazine. So he knows how to communicate to the lay reader. Written in a simple, flowing and enjoyable language and style, Isaccson’s biography of Einstein is an example to show how history or a biography has to be written. This article is not an exhaustive review of the book by Isaccson. Its main purpose is to throw some indicators or pointers to the life and achievements of a great scientific mind who can be a role model for the knowledge-workers of the future.

The emerging paradigms of knowledge are moving beyond the narrow specializations of the left brain to a more intuitive and holistic perspective which can integrate the right and left brain thinking. The knowledge-worker of the future must be able to view his specialization in a larger interdisciplinary and holistic perspective and in a broader context of human values. He must also in his personal life maintain a certain balance between his mind, heart and soul. This requires an intuitive harmony between various faculties of our consciousness. Here comes the unique genius of Einstein. He had this broader vision and balance which may not be perfect, but among the great creatives, he is one of the most balanced with a certain harmony between the right and left side of his brain.

The Multi-faceted personality

Einstein is a pioneer of the new paradigm in science. After the early pioneers of modern science like Galileo and Newton, Einstein gave a new direction to science and technology. As Isaccson sums up briefly the scientific achievements of Einstein:

“His tale encompasses the vast sweep of modern science from the infinitesimal to the infinite, from the emission of photons to the explosion of the cosmos. A century after his great triumph, we are still living in Einstein’s universe, one defined on the macro scale by his theory of relativity and on the micro scale by a quantum mechanics that has proven durable even as it remains disconcerting. His fingerprints are all over today’s technologies. Photoelectric cells and lasers, nuclear power and fibreoptics, space travel and even semiconductors all trace back to his theories.”

However more than his monumental scientific achievements what is unique, special and interesting in Einstein’s life and thought is the dominant humanistic, mystical and artistic streak in his temperament and personality – his love for music, his passionate religious feeling and his warm humanism. Osho once remarked that Einstein is more of a mystic than a scientist and “more mystical than many mystics.” In one of the early biographies of Einstein, Alexandar Mozkovoski wrote, “Music, Nature and God became intermingled in him in a complex of feeling, a moral unity, the trace of which never vanished.” He never believed in the modern corporate mantra, “change is the only constant.” Like the old seers of the east he believed in an unchanging reality and an eternal harmony behind the changing panorama of Nature. Behind his theory of relativity, there is a firm faith in and a quest for the absolutes. As Isaccson remarks:

“Einstein however was not truly a relativist, even though that is how he was interpreted by many…. Beneath all of his theories, including relativity was a quest for invariants, certainties and absolutes. There was a harmonious reality underlying the law of the universe.”

The Intuitive Rider

The other unique feature of the personality of Einstein is that most of his scientific discoveries are not from the traditional methodology of science based on logical deduction from data, but the result of intuition and imagination. He was the sage and artist of science, more intuitive and imaginative than logical. He called this imaginative journey into the unknown as “thought-experiments”. One of his favourite thought-experiments, is to “imagine you are riding on a light-beam,” the “light-beam rider”. He once said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” As Isaccson sums up this aspect of Einstein’s scientific genius:

“He made imaginative leaps and discerned great principles through thought-experiments rather than by methodical inductions based on experimental data – as a theorist his success came not from the brute strength of his mental processing power but from his imagination and creativity.”

Einstein was not only imaginative but also intuitive. He received his intuitions and inspiration from a region of wordless ideas beyond the thoughts and words of the ordinary mentality. The average mind cannot think without words. But Einstein thought in terms of wordless ideas, “I very rarely think in words at all” said Einstein, “A thought comes and I may try to express in words.”

Einstein asked a poet, Saint John Perse, “How does the idea of poem comes.” The poet spoke of the role of intuition and imagination. Einstein responded with delight: “It’s the same for a man of science – It is a sudden illumination, almost a rapture, later to be sure, intelligence analyses and experiments, conform or invalidates the intuition. But initially there is a great forward leap of the imagination.” This may not be the case with all scientists but Einstein pursued his science predominantly with intuition and imagination. Even as a child, Einstein was intuitive, with an ability to discern the hidden and the invisible behind the visible outer appearances. As a young student, he was fascinated by the pendulum and the compass which indicated to him. “Something deeply hidden has to be behind things.”

The Natural Theorist

Some of the Einstein’s observations regarding following natural inclination are revealing indicators to parents, teachers and also for managers. As a student in school in an essay on “My Plans for the future” for an exam, young Einstein wrote:

“If I am lucky and pass my exam, I will enroll in the Zurich Polytechnic. I will stay there four years to study mathematics and physics. I suppose I will become a teacher in these fields of science, opting for the theoretical part of these sciences. Here are the reasons that have led me to this plan. They are most of all my personal talent for abstract and mathematical thinking…. That is quite natural; everybody desires to do that for which he has talent.”

Einstein disliked practical sciences like engineering and the careers which seek only for monetary gains. In a letter to a friend, he wrote:

“I was originally supposed to become an engineer. But the thought of having to expend my creative energy on that which makes practical everyday life even more refined with bleak capital gain as the goal was unbearable to me. Thinking for its own sake, that is like music.”

What would have happened to Einstein had he taken to engineering according to his father’s wish? Speculating on this question, Issacson makes the following interesting observation:

“Had he made such a choice in 1900, Einstein would have likely become a good enough engineer but probably not a great one. Over the ensuring years he would dabble with inventions as hobby and come up with some good concepts for devices ranging from noiseless refrigerators to a machine that measured very low voltage electricity. But none resulted in a significant engineering breakthrough or marketplace success. Though he would be a more brilliant engineer than his father or uncle, it is not clear that he would have been more financially successful.”

Thoughtful comments which every parent who wants his son or daughter to be an engineer, doctor or MBA disregarding his or her natural bent, has to ponder over. However in a deeper perspective, pursuing our natural inclinations and talents, if it is done without seeking for any personal gains, with an aspiration for higher values like truth, beauty and goodness, leads to accelerated inner growth in the mental, moral and spiritual dimension. And when this inner growth expresses itself in the outer life, it may also result in worldly success but not always. Success and recognition in the world requires many other qualities besides natural talent, like for example, charisma, effective communication, practical adaptation and also a little bit of luck. So mundane success should not be held as the main aim of pursuing natural talents.

The Heart of a Genius

Einstein was not only a great mind but had a magnanimous and sensitive heart. He is a passionate lover of music, not merely an appreciative listener but a good player of violin. And music helped him to think. His son Hans Albert recalls, “whenever he felt that he had come to the end of the road and faced a difficult challenge in his work he would take refuge in music and that would solve all his difficulties.”

He got answers to his scientific problems in the midst of music. Einstein was also a keen connoisseur and critic of music and made interesting comments on the works of great musicians. On Mozan, he said, “Mozart’s music is so pure it seems to have been ever present in the universe.” Wagner had “lack of architectural structure, I see a decadence” and Straus was “gifted but without inner truth.”

This aesthetic sensitivity is a vibrant part of Einstein’s personality. As Issacson points out: “there was an aesthetic to Einstein’s thinking, a sense of beauty” and quotes Nathan Rosen, Einstein’s assistant in the 1930s: “In building a theory his approach had something in common with that of an artist. He would aim at simplicity and beauty and beauty for him was, after all, essentially simplicity.”

In the depth of his heart, Einstein was a liberal humanist with a firm faith in individual freedom. Thomas Bucky, a close friend of Einstein, with whom he had long political discussion said, “Einstein was a humanist, socialist and a democrat. He was completely anti-authoritarian no matter whether it is Russian, German or South American. He approved a combination of capitalism and socialism. And he hated all dictatorship of the right or left.” In a speech given to Caltech student, Einstein reminded the budding technocrats that concern for making life better for the common man is the chief aim of science.“Never forget this when you are pondering over your diagrams and equations.”

Einstein was a passionate champion of individual freedom, political and intellectual. He said: “I believe that the most important mission of the state is to protect the individual and to make it possible for him to develop into a creative personality.” He said further, “Liberty is the necessary foundation for the development of all true values” and “only the individual can produce the new idea.” The fundamental requirement of education, he felt, was the “need for intellectual freedom” and “critical comments by students should be taken in a friendly spirit” “accumulation of material should not stifle the students independence.” Einstein had a humanistic and individualistic perspective on history. “In teaching history”, he said, “there should be extensive discussion of personalities who benefited mankind through independence of character and judgement.”

But Einstein’s idealism is not merely mental. He had a passionate heart which can bring intense emotional involvement in whatever it loved, whether it is science, ideas or woman. Isaccson deals in some detail with the love-life of Einstein. He devotes an entire chapter to Einstein’s relationship with a woman he loved and married, Mileva Marie. Einstein considered Marie as his active partner in his scientific work. In a letter to a friend, Einstein said, “I need my wife. She solves all my mathematical problems.” The role of Marie in Einstein’s scientific achievements is a matter of debate among Einstein scholars and researchers. Some consider it as substantial but others (including our biographer Isaccson), dismiss her role as marginal.

Einstein’s heart was not only passionate but also warm and benevolent with a detached kindness for people and a wide compassion for humanity as a whole. The genius was ready to help a young child in her homework in mathematics. Isaccson narrates the anecdote of an 8 year-old girl who rang his bell and asked for help with a maths problem. She carried a plate of fudge as a bribe. He helped explain the maths to her, but made her do her own work. In return for the fudge, he gave her a cookie. After that the girl kept reappearing. When her parents apologized to Einstein, he waved them off and said, “I am learning as much from your child as she is.” Isaccson’s description of this aspect of Einstein’s personality is delightful.

“He was kindly yet aloof, brilliant yet baffled. He floated around with a distracted air and a wry sensibility – cared passionately about humanity and sometimes about people…. He can be detached and aloof from those close to him but towards mankind in general he exuded a true kindness and gentle compassion.”

The Sage of Science

The scientific community in general is either atheistic or cautious, hesitant and secretive about their religious beliefs. But Einstein never hesitated to express his religious beliefs openly in public. Faith in the spiritual and the sacred is an important and intrinsic part of Einstein’s personality. In one of his conversations, he expressed his religious belief in the following words:

“Try and penetrate with our limited means the secret of nature and you will find that behind all the discernible laws and connections there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion.”

Einstein believed that a sense of awe and wonder and adoration for the might, beauty and mystery of the spirit within or behind Nature and the humility which comes from this perception is or has to be an integral part of scientific attitude. In a memorable passage quoted many times, Einstein said, “The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science.” In a letter written to a young girl, Einstein further elaborates this connection between science and the sacred:

“Every one who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe-a spirit vastly superior to that of man and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble. In this way pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort.”

At the end of his life, Einstein said like all true sages:

“The strange thing about growing old is that the intimate identification with the here and now is slowly lost. One feels transposed into infinity, more or less alone.”


The author is a student and practitioner in the path of integral yoga.

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