‘I lack both the natural aptitude and the experience to deal properly with people,’ Albert Einstein wrote in 1952. Having lived the previous three decades as a global celebrity, he could hardly have lacked experience; yet judging by Samuel Graydon’s intriguing, mosaic-like portrait of the great physicist, he was woefully lacking in aptitude.
Graydon says biographers were long hampered by Einstein’s secretary Helen Dukas, who in her role as literary executor suppressed ‘anything that painted Einstein as less than either a mystery or a secular saint’. After she and her co-trustee Otto Nathan died in the 1980s, the floodgates opened and a fuller picture emerged. The Einstein sketched here in ninety-nine short chapters is not only the unworldly genius and quotable sage of popular imagination, but also someone who could excuse his own hurtful behaviour as an unavoidable consequence of his essential nature. ‘I do not believe in free will,’ he said in 1932, and to his second wife made it known that he ‘believed that people were not naturally monogamous, and that the concepts of emotional and physical faithfulness were societal constructs, falsities born of decorum and correctitude’. So she just had to make herself absent whenever his mistress visited, often departing in tears.
Einstein’s flawed reasoning in human affairs contrasts starkly with his intellectual achievements, which Graydon – a science editor at the Times Literary Supplement – summarises clearly and succinctly. It was in the annus mirabilis of 1905 that Einstein, a 26-year-old patent clerk, produced four landmark papers giving the