I finished the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson quite some time ago, but I didn’t bother to blog a review because I didn’t think I had anything to contribute to the discussion that hadn’t already been more eloquently argued by others. But, when listening to John Gruber and Dan Benjamin discuss the book on the Talk Show podcast a few weeks back, they raised a question that piqued my interest, why did Steve choose Walter Isaacson to be his authorised biographer? You have to remember that this biography did not get written because the author was really interested in Steve Jobs and begged and pleaded for cooperation, if anything, the inverse is true. In the introduction to the biography Isaacson explains that it was Steve who asked him to do the book, and that he repeatedly turned Steve down before finally giving in (to the inevitable?). Isaacson specifically mentions that Steve had cited his love of his biography of Albert Einstein as one of his reasons for wanting him as his biographer, so I figured I’d give that a read too, and see if it helped me to understand Steve’s decision to head-hunt Isaacson.
Before looking at the Einstein biography, I just want to give my brief thoughts on the Jobs bio. As I started to read, I was initially very enthusiastic about the book, I was really enjoying it, and getting sucked in. I didn’t know much about Steve’s early life, or Apple’s early and pre history, so there was lots of new information for me to devour. But, as the chapters rolled on, I found myself reading more out of a sense of duty than desire. Sure, I was still learning new anecdotes, but that was about it.
A lay person reading the book would have gained little insight into the evolution of the computer industry, or Steve’s roll in that story. The 30,000ft view of Steve’s life is, to extend the metaphor, clouded out. The Jobs bio is much more of a chronology than an insightful analysis of the man’s life and the impact it had on the world. Steve wanted to make a dent in the universe, and did, but you won’t get a deep understanding of the shape of that dent from the Isaacson biography. Major questions went completely un-asked, let alone answered! The most obvious example of this was raised by John Gruber, why did Steve think NeXT failed? What lessons did he learn from that second failure?
I almost get the impression the second half of the book was rushed, a desire to be first to market may have extracted a heavy toll from the book.
I don’t want to be totally negative about the book though, so I will say that it has some gems in it, like the entire chapter devoted to the music on Steve’s iPod.
So – what about the Einstein biography? For a start, I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it, I couldn’t put it down! I came away with a better understanding of the man, his science, where his science fits into the big picture, and also his complex political and religious views. Something Einstein and Jobs have in common is that they were both complicated men, and they both made their biggest mark on the world in technical spheres.
Leaving aside the science for a moment, the biography gives a good insight into Einstein’s unusual personal life, as well as his often conflicted politics. Why would a pacifist encourage the Belgians to arm themselves against Germany? Why would a pacifist urge the US to build the atomic bomb? How does someone utterly repulsed by nationalism become a Zionist? His views on God are also far from simplistic, and defy simple classification. All these things, Isaacson explained and analysed with impressive clarity and insightfulness.
Obviously one of the main threads that weaves the story together is Einstein’s science, from his meteoric rise as a young iconoclast, to his slow evolution into the arch conservative who resisted the implications of quantum mechanics to the very last.
Explaining Relativity is no simple task, but Isaacson does it well, and he does more, he also illuminates the mental route that led Einstein to developing the theory, and he does a good job of distilling out the important impacts it had on the world of science. Similarly, he succeeds at explaining the mind-bending ideas at the core of Quantum Mechanics, as well as their astounding implications for the concept of reality, and why those implications so disturbed Einstein. It would have been so easy to get the science wrong, or to gloss over it, but Isaacson didn’t, he tackled it head-on, and succeeded!
So, in short, the Einstein biography manages to distil a compelling narrative out of the many aspects of Einstein and his life, and does so in a way that makes you feel you’ve gained a real insight into the man, and his impact on our world.
Having read the Einstein biography, I’m left in no doubt at all as to what Steve saw in it, and why it made him so keen to tap Isaacson to give his life story the same treatment. But it didn’t work. In the Einstein biography the chronology of the science forms the back-bone on which the rest of the story is hung, and you can see a very similar structure in the Jobs book. But, there is a key difference, Isaacson deeply groks science, but not the computer industry, and you can’t fake insight!
There is one hint in the Einstein book as to why the Jobs biography was a lacklustre affair. There’s one piece of the science that Isaacson seems not to grok, and he just ignores it. Bell’s Inequality (or Bell’s Theorem) is not at all easy to explain, but its relevance to Einstein and Quantum Mechanics is hard to understate. Einstein believed that God did not play dice with the universe, that the probabilistic nature of Quantum Mechanics was not a reflection of the true nature of reality, but simply a shortcoming in the theory. There must be a deeper reality, and it must be deterministic, we just have to keep looking till we find it. Equally, he abhorred what he called the “spooky action at a distance” implied by quantum entanglement. Entanglement seems to allow information to travel faster than the speed of light, which breaks the principle of locality, and strikes at the heart of relativity.
These are not easy questions to address, but Bell’s Theorem does just that. More importantly, it opens these questions up to experimental test. If Einstein was right, you would get one set of answers from the experiments, if he was wrong, another. Scientists have been slowly carrying out these experiments, and although they haven’t produced a definitive answer yet, they have proved that Einstein was definitely at least partially wrong. Quantum mechanics really does violate the principle of locality, and there is probably no deeper deterministic reality. It seems God plays dice in a spooky universe!
Clearly, Bell and his theorem make a vital contribution to our understanding of Einstein’s legacy, but Isaacson effectively ignores them, and their far-reaching implications. Bell is mentioned in passing once in the book, without any explanation or analysis of his very important contribution to Einstein’s story. The Jobs book is full of Bell moments. Full of important topics side-stepped, and necessary analysis omitted.
Something else that bears mention is how different the research for the two books must have been. Einstein was dead long before Isaacson wrote the first sentence of that biography. Decades had passed, and many books and articles had been written about him as the world took it’s time to come to terms with Einstein’s complex legacy. Isaacson never had the opportunity to interview Einstein, instead, he had to synthesise the big picture out of the existing material. With Steve, things were very different, when Isaacson started, Steve was still alive, and although there have been books written about many aspects of Steve’s life, this was the first attempt at writing a definitive biography of him. The skill sets involved in distilling down the information in existing sources, and asking a living person the right questions in the right way are completely different. Just because Isaacson is clearly the master of the former, is no reason to assume he’s the master of the latter too!
Finally – Einstein’s legacy is now pretty much settled, enough time has passed for that clarity to emerge, the same simply cannot be said about Steve Jobs – he may no longer be with us, but his legacy is still unfolding before us. It’s simply too early for a definitive biography to be written about Steve Jobs!
In the long run, I think Isaacson’s biography of Einstein will stand the test of time very well, as a well rounded exploration of the man’s life and works, based on many primary sources, while his Steve Jobs biography will be remembered only as one of the important primary sources which future authors will build on when writing more insightful biographies.