Albert Einstein

Elma Ehrlich Levinger - Published 1949

Born in Chicago in 1887, Elma Ehrlich Levinger worked her way through the University of Chicago, quite an accomplishment for a woman of her time. Later she was awarded a fellowship to study drama at Radcliffe College, and she wrote a number of plays, several of which won prizes in national contests. One of the best known is the biblical drama in one act, Jephthah's Daughter (1921). She also wrote short stories and two adult novels before turning to biography for young people. She was married to Lee Joseph Levinger. She died in 1958.


Albert Einstein emphasizes the human and personal side of one of the greatest scientists of the twentieth century, providing a good introduction to his life. While several of Einstein's important theories, including the revolutionary theory of relativity, are explained clearly and simply, the book stresses his resistance to Adolf Hitler and the Nazis and his stubborn refusal to believe that atomic energy could be used for anything but peaceful purposes.

Although this book is immensely enjoyable, anyone researching Einstein should consult more recent publications as well. Subsequent works have uncovered new information and revealed some inevitable flaws in Levinger's study.


The biographical novel begins in late nineteenth-century Munich, where the young Albert Einstein lives happily with his affluent, loving family but hates the highly disciplined German schools. Emphasizing rote learning, the teachers discourage students from asking questions and confuse the young Jewish boy by teaching the Catholic religion in the same matter-of-fact manner in which they teach reading and arithmetic.

When Albert is a teenager, the setting shifts to Milan, Italy, where his father has gone to make a fresh start after a business failure in Munich. Albert stays in Munich for a while to continue his schooling but becomes so unhappy that he leaves and joins his family. In Italy he enjoys an atmosphere of freedom, hiking in the mountains, visiting art galleries, and attending concerts and operas. But his father's business does not prosper, and it is necessary for Albert to prepare himself for a career. Albert decides to renounce his German citizenship, continue his education at the Swiss Federal Polytechnic School in Zurich, and become a theoretical physicist.

The scene shifts many more times in the course of this biography: to Prague, Czechoslovakia; back to Zurich; to Berlin; and finally to the United States. But the setting plays a secondary role to the character of Einstein. Levinger never describes physical details of a street in Munich or a mountain in Switzerland; she describes the atmosphere in German schools, but never offers a single specific example of the rigid discipline. Instead, the author characterizes a setting in terms of its effects on Einstein. Thus, his surroundings play a vital role in bringing Einstein to life for the reader.


Albert Einstein emphasizes freedom of thought and inquiry. From the very beginning, the reader is impressed with the lack of these qualities in the German schools and the German society in which Einstein is raised. During the years of World War I, Einstein finds it particularly difficult to live in Germany. Although not interested in politics, he embraces pacifism wholeheartedly while many of his colleagues contribute to the German war effort by developing poisonous gases and explosives. Because he is a theoretical rather than an applied scientist, Einstein is not expected to take part in the war effort, but he is expected to take the side of Germany. Encouraging its writers, musicians, and scientists to approve its actions, the German government prepares a paper for them to sign indicating their approval. Many of Germany's most famous intellectuals sign, but Einstein refuses. Technically, he cannot be considered a traitor because he is no longer a German citizen, but many patriotic Germans dislike him for his refusal. Einstein's commitment to freedom is also exemplified by his interest in the plight of the European Jews, who suffer tragically during the war.

His Jewish heritage presents personal problems for Einstein, even though he is not religious. After World War I, others attack his scientific theories on nonscientific grounds because some German scientists hate him both as a Jew and as a pacifist. When Adolf Hitler comes to power in 1933 and blames Jews for the German defeat in World War I, Einstein's homeland is no longer safe. Deciding that he cannot stay in a country that lacks political liberty, tolerance, and equality for all citizens, he accepts a teaching position at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, New Jersey, where he lives for the rest of his life.


Levinger's most effective literary technique involves her use of the biographical novel's various settings. The settings reflect Einstein's emotions so that Levinger's description of a particular place often serves as a description of the main character's feelings as well. Although the settings' lack of physical detail is sometimes criticized, this absence allows the setting to act as a more direct medium through which Einstein's character is revealed. The setting also advances Levinger's theme of freedom as, for example, the liberating atmosphere of the Italian mountains contrasts the rigidity of the German schools.

Among the weaker points of Levinger's writing is the inconsistency of her style, particularly her clumsy rendering of dialogue. While the invented conversations verge on simplistic, apparently composed with a grade school audience in mind, most of the text is written for a more sophisticated audience. The more advanced sections sacrifice color for the sake of clarity.

Levinger goes to great lengths to humanize Einstein, stressing eccentricities such as his lack of interest in clothing and his disheveled appearance. But references to his 'soft, shapeless hat,' his 'shabby coat,' and the like occur so often that they become a stylistic nuisance. Surely there are more important things to say about one of the twentieth century's greatest scientists.


The descriptions of Einstein's two marriages will undoubtedly offend many of today's readers. Einstein's first wife, Mileva Maritsch, is an ambitious student from Hungary whom Einstein meets at the Polytechnic in Zurich. Levinger illustrates Mileva's dissatisfaction with the woman's role in German society: 'Why devote one's life to the three K's (Kueche, Kirche, Kinder—kitchen, church, and children) which the silly old kaiser had declared should be the only interest of women? She had a man's brain and might someday make real contributions to science.' Levinger does not explain why one needs a 'man's brain' to make scientific contributions, and most readers will find this statement perplexing at best.

Einstein's marriage to Mileva breaks up after several years because it contains nothing for her but the 'three K's.' He later marries his cousin Elsa, a widow with two children. She is much more compatible with Einstein because she has no intellectual needs of her own and is happy taking care of her husband, who seems to need more care than most men. These details are matters of fact; the problem is in the author's reporting of them. Elsa is made to seem much more attractive and caring than Mileva, whose only basic 'fault' is that she wants to use her mind.

Perceptive readers will undoubtedly smile at the 'brave new world' forecast in the last chapter, in which the author predicts the elimination of hunger and poverty as a result of atomic power: 'Houses will be heated and lighted for a cent or two a day and coal mines will become a curiosity.' Although this world would be a fitting monument to Einstein's love for humanity, it has not materialized. Nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl have illustrated that, despite its many benefits, atomic energy is a dangerous force. Einstein gave the world a mixed blessing.


1. Do you think you understand Einstein's theory of relativity? Try explaining it to your classmates.

2. Is Levinger's portrayal of Mileva fair? What do you think of Levinger's comment that Mileva has 'a man's brain'?

3. Why does Einstein have difficulty establishing himself in a career as a teacher? Would a young person today be likely to encounter such problems?

4. Why does Einstein prefer Switzerland to Germany or Czechoslovakia?

5. Do you think you would enjoy having Einstein as a teacher? Why or why not?

6. What is a pacifist? How does Einstein's view on pacifism gradually change?

7. Why does Einstein urge President Roosevelt to have the United States begin work on the atomic bomb?

8. How do Einstein and President Truman differ in their ideas about how the bomb should be used to shorten World War II?

9. Do you think that Levinger spends too much time describing Einstein's unkempt physical appearance?

10. At one point, when asked to explain the theory of relativity, Einstein offers to play the violin instead. Why?


1. According to Levinger, Einstein is sometimes called the Newton of the twentieth century because his theory of general relativity challenged the ideas of gravity and light that Sir Isaac Newton had given to the world two centuries earlier. What were Newton's ideas about gravity and light? How are Einstein's ideas different?

2. How have more recent scientists, such as Stephen W. Hawking, amended some of Einstein's theories?

3. What are some of the advances in medical science that have resulted from the development of atomic energy?

4. Some of the advances in the quality of life that Levinger predicted would result from atomic energy have not come about in the forty years since the book was written. Do you think they will ever take place, or was Levinger overly optimistic?

5. Disposal of nuclear waste is one of the greatest drawbacks to the development of nuclear power. What would Einstein think about this problem? Do you think he would have a solution?

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