I bet you would recognize a photo of Albert Einstein, with his wild hair and messy clothes. And you probably know that he discovered the equation E=mc2, even if you don’t know what it means. But those things aren’t even the most interesting aspects of one of the greatest scientists who ever lived. To fill us in on the rest, here’s the original graphic novel, Einstein.
At around 300 pages long, the graphic novel biography is now available through the First Second publisher. Einstein is written by Jim Ottaviani, author of #1 New York Times Bestseller Feynman, another graphic novel biography of a famous physicist. Art is by Jerel Dye with colors by Alison Acton.
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In fact, Ottaviani writes at the start of the afterword that the graphic novel is “not so much a biography of Albert Einstein as a story about him.” And so it reads like one long, cinematic narrative covering all the groundbreaking figure’s major moments and groundbreaking scientific theories.
Dye’s art style reminds me of Sunday morning comics, with a recognizable cartoon version of Einstein and many other famous scientists, plus a celebrity or two.
More importantly, it does a tremendous job of recreating the clothing, styles, architecture, and settings of the period between Einstein’s birth in 1879 and his death in 1955. Encompassing the end of the Industrial Revolution and both world wars, the reader sees central Europe as it was in the early 1900s, along with America after World War II.
The reader witnesses the poor living conditions of Einstein’s childhood family as well as the poverty of the average German household between the world wars, but we also see the luxury of his celebrity status and well-paid academic positions in his last years. Everything illustrated has obviously been carefully researched, but so has everything in the book.
As a physicist myself, I was very interested in seeing how the graphic novel would use its visual form to depict the groundbreaking theories discovered by Einstein. Most of Einstein’s theories are incredibly complex, but become more understandable with good visualization. I had hoped to see creative new ways to visualize theories like special and general relativity, including things like black holes and gravity waves.
Unfortunately, although the physics covered in the book is well documented and accurate, there isn’t much new to someone who has studied the field or seen other illustrations of Einstein’s theories. With a more general audience in mind, Ottaviani and Dye just don’t go deep. For the layman this is enough to give a general idea, but for a physicist it only scratches the surface. That’s probably for the best, though, since even most experts don’t understand all of the intricacies of relativity.
That being said, there’s a decent amount of interesting physics in the book, and the illustrations are all accurate. The creators were free to do things in a graphic novel that you wouldn’t normally see in a biography. For example, to explain his special theory of relativity, Einstein has a long (imaginary) conversation with Isaac Newton, who lived more than a century earlier.
There are still plenty of expositions, however, delivered by secondary characters – never Einstein himself – who break the fourth wall and speak directly to the reader. Dialogue spoken to the reader is cleverly indicated by squarer speech bubbles, while rounded speech bubbles are used when characters talk to each other.
Much of the text appears to come from letters written either by Einstein or to him in correspondence with various people. It gives an interesting insight into the private writing style of the great scientist.
Unfortunately, Einstein has some weaknesses. The biggest, in my opinion, is the complete lack of chapters. The story is written as one long narrative from start to finish, spanning nearly 300 pages. Also, jumps between scenes, events, or stories often occur in the middle of a page. Regularly, the first panel of a new page is the end of the previous scene and also the transition to the next. Maybe the decision to exclude chapters stems from the idea that life can’t be sliced up into nice, self-contained divisions, but I think the reading experience would be enhanced if some sort of narrative breaks had been included.
The lack of chapters also compounds the second biggest weakness, that the story kind of drags in the middle. The beginning is interesting, summarizing Einstein’s childhood and the development of his thought experiments up to his so-called “miracle year”, in which, at the age of 26, he published five articles revolutionaries. The final third of the book comes to life describing Einstein’s interactions with other famous scientists of the time, specifically Niels Bohr. Einstein’s friendship with Bohr coupled with his opposition to Bohr’s quantum theory makes for an engaging and even heartwarming tale.
The middle of the book recounts Einstein’s frequent travels through central Europe from one academic position to another, as he attempted to establish himself in academia while developing the general theory of relativity. Unfortunately, this period does not include any real progress in his personal or professional life. It may be important for the biography, but it slows the story down too much.
Of course, the most important aspect of any biography is the picture it presents of its subject. This graphic novel obviously praises Einstein for his genius, as it shows his involvement in almost every major discovery in modern physics. In fact, that might overemphasize Einstein’s involvement in some of the discoveries, but again, the man’s legacy speaks for itself.
As a person, Einstein is mostly portrayed as friendly and sympathetic, perhaps as a kind, somewhat whimsical, and often distracted uncle who you enjoy spending time with at Christmas. The reader feels as if they are often lost in their own thoughts and thought experiences, living as much in their fantasies as in reality.
Ottaviani, to his credit, doesn’t shy away from Einstein’s worst character flaws. In fact, most of the scenes in his private life focus on his mistreatment of his wives, especially his first wife, and their children. Unfortunately, Einstein was so preoccupied with his research that he was absent most of the time as a father. And in his love life, he was also apparently more drawn to fantasies of what could be than the reality he had. He cheated on his two wives, indulging in numerous affairs – even one with a Russian spy.
Overall, the image we find of Einstein as a person is best summed up by a quote from actor Charlie Chaplin near the end of the graphic novel, “Kind, sociable, and in love with humanity, but detached of its environment and the people of it.”
The biography of the graphic novel Einstein would make a great gift for anyone with even a little interest in their life, or physics in general. The well-researched narrative is charming and entertaining. The artist Dye wonderfully recreates Central Europe and America at a time of great social, political and technological upheaval. The writer Ottaviani may not explore Einstein’s theories in depth, but he gives us a very interesting overview of all the groundbreaking discoveries that transformed classical physics into modern physics, while revealing key aspects of Einstein’s personal life.
Graphic novel ‘Einstein’ balances his science and his life
This well-researched graphic novel biography is charming and entertaining. Artist Jerel Dye beautifully recreates Central Europe and America at a time of great social, political and technological upheaval. Writer Jim Ottaviani may not explore Einstein’s theories in depth, but he gives us some very interesting insight into the groundbreaking discoveries that transformed classical physics into modern physics, while revealing key aspects of life Einstein’s personal.
Well-documented look at the life of Einstein.
The art recreates the sets and clothing very well.
Excellent overview of many groundbreaking scientific theories.
Slip a little in the middle.
Physics is not explored in depth.
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