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The life of Mr. E = MC 2

Sara Lippincott is an assistant editor of Book Review.

SOME coffee table books are more important than others. Magnes Press of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has just issued “Albert Einstein: The Persistent Illusion of Transience,” containing an amazing collection of documents and photographs. In this enterprise the university has an edge: Einstein bequeathed his personal and scientific papers to it, and they are housed in its Albert Einstein Archives.

The editors have divided the book into sections on the great scientist’s family life, his science, his politics, his “Jewish identity,” his sojourn in the United States, his hobbies (music, sailing), his correspondence with children, a “Curiosity File” (consisting mostly of peculiar letters from admirers) and last, “Einstein the Myth.” This deals with his entry into popular culture and features the famous (uncropped) photo of the 72-year-old Nobelist sticking his tongue out at a United Press photographer while sitting in the back seat of an automobile between Frank Aydelotte, former director of the Institute for Advanced Study, and Mrs. Aydelotte. The final section also includes -- and I rather wish it didn’t -- a color photograph of pieces of his brain in a jar.

But the jugged brain is the only lapse in this handsomely produced volume. Turning its pages, you come so close to Einstein he seems to be in the room with you. The birth certificate, issued in Ulm, Germany, on March 15, 1879. Photos of his parents, the father “a kind-hearted man, unsuccessful merchant, fond of German literature,” the mother looking a bit more intelligent. A class photograph at Munich’s Luitpold-Gymnasium: five rows of little boys, among them 10-year-old Albert, the only one smiling. Letters in his neat hand, signed “Albert.” -- with the period. In one, he addresses his colleague Conrad Habicht (“So what are you up to, you frozen whale, you smoked, fried, canned piece of soul”), with whom he often discussed physics as he neared the annus mirabilis, 1905, in which he produced the papers on special relativity, the photoelectric effect, Brownian motion and the equivalence of mass and energy.

There’s a photo of him and his second wife (and cousin), Elsa, at the Grand Canyon in 1931, standing unnervingly close to the edge, with that landscape of deep time stretching behind them, and you’re reminded that the staggering age represented there must have been a drop in the bucket to him.

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There’s a picture of him in Bern, Switzerland, circa 1905, in a truly awful “tailor-made” plaid suit with matching vest.

My favorite is a shot of him striding down a leafy street in Princeton, N.J., wearing the kind of clothes you’d mow the lawn in and looking the picture of health and happiness, just a year or two before his death in 1955.

There are photos of him in 1925 with physicist Niels Bohr, with whom he argued adamantly and long about the reality of quantum theory -- a probabilistic worldview he had helped initiate with his paper on the photoelectric effect. It soon became clear that Einstein would never accept it.

Outside the mainstream of theoretical physics in later life, Einstein labored to find a “unified field theory” -- a reason for everything, in a sense. He failed. But relativity was enough, and he knew it. Here’s his stock answer to journalists who asked him the reason for his fame: “When the blind beetle crawls over the surface of a globe, he doesn’t realize that the track he has covered is curved. I was lucky enough to have spotted it.”

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sara.lippincott@latimes.com.


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