Steven Gimbel, Einstein; His Space and Time (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015), 191pp.Steven Gimbel, Einstein; His Space and Time (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015), 191pp.

This short biography is one of the titles in Yale University Press's "Jewish Lives" series of "interpretive biographies" of Jewish figures in literature, religion, philosophy, politics, culture, economics, art, and the sciences.  About two dozen titles are already published, with about the same number still forthcoming.  Gimbel does a wonderful job of introducing a complicated man in a complicated field without getting lost in the weeds.  The six chapters are a good mix of Einstein's science, politics, personal life, and professional career.

Einstein grew up in a Jewish family that was so secular that they prided themselves on sending their son to a Catholic school.  They were not only non-observant, says Gimbel, they were "antiobservant."  It wasn't long before the young Albert showed what would be a lifelong trait, his contempt for all authority and convention, both sacred and secular.  "In his mind, both nationalism and religiosity were symptoms of a shackled mind requiring unthinking loyalty to a structure built on authority."  And so, for example, he renounced both his Judaism and his German citizenship as a teenager.

Gimbel does an especially good job of showing how Einstein's science had political ramifications — in Nazi Germany, in democratic America under J. Edgar Hoover, for Israel and the Zionist movement, and among fellow scientists with the advent of the atomic age and quantum mechanics.  The patent clerk who became a global celebrity and Nobel laureate wasn't a detached "eccentric genius."  He was "the high priest of modernism," a man of his own space and time, an outspoken pacifist who deplored militarism, and who "remained actively engaged in international affairs throughout his life."