I bet you’d recognize a picture of Albert Einstein, with his wild hair and disheveled 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 comes the original graphic novel, Einstein.
About 300 pages long, the graphic novel biography is now available via publisher First Second. Einstein is written by Jim Ottaviani, author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Feynman, another graphic novel biography of a famous physicist. The art is by Jerel Dye with colors by Alison Acton.
Actually, Ottaviani writes at the beginning of the afterword that the graphic novel is, “not so much a biography of Albert Einstein as it is a story about him.” And so it reads like one long, cinematic narrative covering all the major moments and world-changing scientific theories of the revolutionary figure.
Dye’s art style reminds me of Sunday morning comic strips, with a recognizable cartoon version of Einstein and many other famous scientists, as well as a celebrity or two.
More importantly, he does a wonderful job 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 two 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 meager 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-paying university positions in his later years. Everything illustrated was obviously carefully researched, but so was everything in the book.
As a physicist myself, I was most interested to see how the graphic novel would use its visual form to depict the groundbreaking theories that Einstein discovered. Most of Einstein’s theories are incredibly complex, but become more understandable with a good visualization. I had hoped to see some creative new ways to visualize theories like special and general relativity, including things like black holes and gravity waves.
Unfortunately, although the physics discussed in the book is well-researched and accurate, there isn’t much new to someone who’s 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 into great depth. For the layman, there’s 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 the complexities of relativity.
That being said, there is 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 not normally seen 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’s still plenty of exposition, though, delivered by supporting characters – never Einstein himself – who break the fourth wall and talk directly to the reader. The dialogue spoken to the reader is cleverly denoted by more squared-off word balloons, while rounded word balloons are used when characters speak to each other.
A lot of the text appears to originate from letters written either by Einstein or to him in correspondence with a variety of people. It gives an interesting glimpse into the private writing style of the great scientist.
Unfortunately, Einstein has a few weaknesses. The biggest, in my opinion, is the complete lack of chapters. The story is written as one long narrative from beginning to end, for almost 300 pages. On top of this, the jumps between scenes, events, or anecdotes 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 into the next one. Perhaps the decision to exclude chapters stems from the idea that life can’t be cut up into nice, self-contained divisions, but I think the reading experience would be improved if some kind of narrative breaks had been included.
The lack of chapters also worsens 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,” during which, at the age of 26, he published five groundbreaking papers. The final third of the book regains life by depicting Einstein’s interactions with other famous scientists of the time, most specifically Niels Bohr. Einstein’s friendship with Bohr coupled with his opposition to Bohr’s quantum theory makes for an engaging and even heartwarming narrative.
The middle of the book chronicles Einstein’s frequent moves around central Europe from one university position to the next, as he attempts to establish himself in academia while developing the general theory of relativity. Sadly, this period includes no real progress in his personal or professional life. It may be important to the biography, but it slows the story down too much.
Of course, the most important aspect of any biography is the image that it presents of its subject. This graphic novel obviously gives Einstein high praise for his genius, as it shows his involvement in nearly every major discovery of modern physics. Actually, it might over emphasize Einstein’s involvement in some discoveries, but, then again, the man’s legacy speaks for itself.
As a person, Einstein is mostly presented as friendly and likable, maybe like a kind, somewhat whimsical and often absentminded uncle who you enjoy spending time with at Christmas. The reader gets the sense that he was often lost in his own thoughts and thought-experiments, living just as much in his fantasies as in reality.
Ottaviani, to his credit, doesn’t shy away from Einstein’s worst character flaws. In fact, most of the scenes about his private life focus on his poor treatment of his wives, especially his first wife, and their children. Unfortunately, Einstein was so preoccupied with his research that he was mostly absent as a father. And in his love life, he was also apparently more attracted to fantasies of what could be than the reality that he had. He cheated on both of his 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 by actor Charlie Chaplin near the end of the graphic novel, “Kind, sociable, and a lover of humanity, but detached from his environment and the people in it.”
The graphic novel biography Einstein would make a great gift for anyone even slightly interested in his life, or in physics in general. The thoroughly researched narrative is charming and entertaining. Artist Dye wonderfully recreates central Europe and America during a time of great social, political and technological upheaval. Writer Ottaviani may not explore Einstein’s theories in depth, but he does give us a very interesting look into all of the groundbreaking discoveries that changed classical physics into modern physics, while also revealing key aspects of Einstein’s personal life.
Join the AIPT Patreon
Want to take our relationship to the next level? Become a patron today to gain access to exclusive perks, such as:
- ❌ Remove all ads on the website
- 💬 Join our Discord community, where we chat about the latest news and releases from everything we cover on AIPT
- 📗 Access to our monthly book club
- 📦 Get a physical trade paperback shipped to you every month
- 💥 And more!