Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Albert Einstein’

09 DECEMBER, 2014

Albert Einstein on the Fickle Nature of Fame, the Real Rewards of Work, and the “Whole Buffoonery” of the Cultural Establishment

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“Worshipped today, scorned or even crucified tomorrow, that is the fate of people whom—God knows why—the bored public has taken possession of.”

Albert Einstein was a master of articulating his convictions with mesmerizing precision in his letters — he counseled his son on the secret to learning anything, explained to a colleague the secret of his genius, wisely answered a little girl’s question about whether scientists pray, assured another who feared that her gender would hold her back, and corresponded with Freud about the deepest truths of violence, peace, and human nature.

Now, thanks to Princeton University’s newly released archive of Einstein papers, one of Einstein’s most perceptive, prescient opinions comes to light.

In 1922, Einstein decided to join the International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation, even though he indicated in his letters — not without snark — that he wasn’t entirely certain of its purpose. Meanwhile, his Swiss friend Heinrich Zangger, a professor of forensic medicine at the University of Zurich, had written to express his vexation over the petty politics of the scientific world. In a June 18, 1922, letter to his friend, Einstein addresses the general posturing of the establishment and the fickle nature of fame — a sentiment that resonates at even higher frequencies of truth in the context of today’s conveyor belt of celebrity and the sandcastles that pass for the ivory towers of contemporary culture:

Dear friend Zangger,

You wrote me affectionately and at length, and some of it I was even — able to read. Don’t take any heed, if [anyone] is placing obstacles in your path. You always have pleasure in doing your thing well; it must give you independence from the whole buffoonery into which we have been born. I have largely attained this independence. Worshipped today, scorned or even crucified tomorrow, that is the fate of people whom — God* knows why — the bored public has taken possession of.

Decades later, the great Richard Feynman — the scientist-sage of a new generation — would come to echo this in his spirited opprobrium of honors. And yet Einstein was both right and wrong — as disposable as most objects of hero-worship may be, here we are admiring a great mind a century after his heyday. One can’t help but wonder, then, who the Einsteins of today are and whether, in a culture that increasingly confuses being noticed for being notable, any of our present idols will stand the test of time to have their emails quoted by future generations.

Complement the wholly absorbing Princeton archive with Einstein on fairy tales and education, why we are alive, and his soul-stretching conversation with the Indian philosopher Tagore.

Photograph of Albert Einstein colorized by Mads Madsen

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14 MARCH, 2014

Einstein on Fairy Tales and Education

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“How far superior an education that stresses independent action and personal responsibility is to one that relies on drill, external authority and ambition.”

Albert Einstein, celebrated as “the quintessential modern genius,” is credited with many things — from era-defining scientific discoveries to great wisdom on everything from creativity to kindness to war to the secret to learning anything. Among them is also a sentiment of admirable insight yet questionable attribution: In Christopher Frayling’s 2005 book Mad, Bad and Dangerous?: The Scientist and the Cinema, Einstein is credited as having said:

If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be very intelligent, read them more fairy tales.

Illustration by Vladimir Radunsky for 'On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein.' Click image for details.

As an enormous lover of fairy tales and a believer in Tolkien’s proposition that they are not written “for children,” I was, of course, instantly gladdened by these words, but also peeved by the broken chain of proper attribution. After diligent digging through various archives, I found the earliest reference to this in an out-of-print volume published by the Montana State Library for Book Week in November of 1958*. The entry, a second-hand account at best, reads:

In the current New Mexico Library Bulletin, Elizabeth Margulis tells a story of a woman who was a personal friend of the late dean of scientists, Dr. Albert Einstein. Motivated partly by her admiration for him, she held hopes that her son might become a scientist. One day she asked Dr. Einstein’s advice about the kind of reading that would best prepare the child for this career. To her surprise, the scientist recommended ‘Fairy tales and more fairy tales.’ The mother protested that she was really serious about this and she wanted a serious answer; but Dr. Einstein persisted, adding that creative imagination is the essential element in the intellectual equipment of the true scientist, and that fairy tales are the childhood stimulus to this quality.

Folklorist and literary scholar Jack Zipes further transforms Einstein’s alleged aphorism in into a charming short fable in the introduction to his 1979 book Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales:

Once upon a time the famous physicist Albert Einstein was confronted by an overly concerned woman who sought advice on how to raise her small son to become a successful scientist. In particular she wanted to know what kinds of books she should read to her son.

“Fairy Tales,” Einstein responded without hesitation.

“Fine, but what else should I read to him after that?” the mother asked.

“More fairy tales,” Einstein stated.

“And after that?”

“Even more fairy tales,” replied the great scientist, and he waved his pipe like a wizard pronouncing a happy end to a long adventure.

While we might never know the full, accurate details for Einstein’s fairy-tale adage, embedded in it is something the celebrated physicist felt very strongly about: the importance of the liberal arts and humanities in education. The preface to Dear Professor Einstein: Albert Einstein’s Letters to and from Children (public library | IndieBound) — the same impossibly endearing volume that gave us his encouraging advice to a little girl who wanted to be a scientist and his answer to child who asked whether scientists pray — features the following autobiographical reflection by Einstein:

This school with its liberal spirit and teachers with a simple earnestness that did not rely on any external authority, made an unforgettable impression on me. In comparing it with six years schooling at an authoritarian German Gymnasium, I was made acutely aware how far superior an education that stresses independent action and personal responsibility is to one that relies on drill, external authority and ambition.

Complement with Einstein on why we’re alive (in a letter to a Brain Pickings reader’s mother), his remarkable conversation with Indian philosopher Tagore, and his life-story, illustrated.

UPDATE: Library of Congress researcher Stephen Winick has now dug deeper into the origin of Einstein’s alleged aphorism.

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30 DECEMBER, 2013

On a Beam of Light: The Story of Albert Einstein, Illustrated by the Great Vladimir Radunsky

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The charming visual tale of an introverted little boy who grew up to become the quintessential modern genius.

Given my soft spot for picture-book and graphic-novel accounts of famous lives, including Charles Darwin, Julia Child, Hunter S. Thompson, Richard Feynman, Ella Fitzgerald, and Steve Jobs, I was instantly taken with On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein (public library). Written by Jennifer Berne and illustrated by none other than Vladimir Radunsky — the same magnificent talent who brought young Mark Twain’s irreverent Advice to Little Girls back to life in 2013, which topped the list of the year’s best children’s books and was among the year’s best books overall. This charming picture-book tells the tale of how an unusual and awkward child blossomed into becoming “the quintessential modern genius” by the sheer virtue of his unrelenting curiosity.

The story begins with Albert’s birth — a beautiful but odd baby boy who turns one and doesn’t say a word, turns two, then three, and nary a word.

Instead, he “just looked around with his big curious eyes,” wondering about the world. His parents worried that there might be something wrong, but loved him unconditionally. And then:

One day, when Albert was sick in bed, his father brought him a compass — a small round case with a magnetic needle inside. No matter which way Albert turned the compass, the needle always pointed north, as if held by an invisible hand. Albert was so amazed his body trembled.

Suddenly, he knew there were mysteries in the world — hidden and silent, unknown and unseen. He wanted, more than anything, to understand those mysteries.

This was that pivotal spark of curiosity that catapulted his young mind into a lifetime of exploring those mysteries. (One can’t help but wonder whether a similar child, today, would have a similar awakening of mind while beholding a smartphone’s fully automated GPS map. But, perhaps, that modern child would be developing a wholly different type of intelligence.)

Young Albert began asking countless questions at home and at school — so much so, that his teachers chastised him for being a disturbance, admonishing the little boy that he would get nowhere in life unless he learned to follow the rules and behave like the other kids. And yet the mysteries of the universe drew Albert deeper into inquiry.

One day, while riding his bicycle, he gazes at the rays of sunlight beaming from the Sun to the Earth and wonders what it would be like to ride on them, transporting himself into that fantasy:

It was the biggest, most exciting thought Albert had ever had. And it filled his mind with questions.

So he set out to answer them by burying himself in books, reading and discovering the poetry of numbers, that special secret language for decoding the mysteries of the universe.

Once he graduated from college, unable to find a teaching position, he settled for a low-key, quiet government job that allowed him to spend plenty of time with his thoughts and his mathematical explorations, pondering the everyday enigmas of life, until his thoughts coalesced into ideas that made sense of it all — ideas about atoms and motion and space and time. Soon, Albert became an internationally celebrated man of genius.

But with that came the necessary amount of eccentricity — or at least what seemed eccentric from the outside, but is in fact a vital part of any creative mind. Albert, for instance, liked to play his violin when he was having a hard time solving a particularly tricky problem — a perfect way to engage the incubation stage of the creative process, wherein the mind, engulfed in unconscious processing, makes “no effort of a direct nature” in order to later arrive at “sudden illumination.”

Some of his habits, however, were decidedly, and charmingly, quirky: He regularly wandered around town eating an ice-cream cone, and he preferred to wear no socks — not because he tried to be a pseudo-nonconformist, but because he “even chose his clothes for thinking,” often clad in his signature “comfy, old saggy-baggy sweaters and pants.”

Still, everywhere he went, he remained mesmerized by the mysteries of the universe, and the echoes of his thoughts framed much of our modern understanding of the world:

Albert’s ideas helped build spaceships and satellites that travel to the moon and beyond. His thinking helped us understand the universe as no one ever had before.

And yet the central message of this altogether wonderful picture-book is that despite his genius — or, perhaps, precisely because of it — Einstein’s greatest legacy to us isn’t all the answers he bequeathed but all the open questions he left for today’s young minds to grow up pondering. Because, after all, it is “thoroughly conscious ignorance” that drives science and our understanding of life.

The final spread, reminiscent of these illustrated morphologies of Susan Sontag’s favorite things and Ronald Barthes’s likes and dislikes, captures Einstein’s life in eight essentials:

Complement On a Beam of Light with Einstein on why we are alive, on science vs. religion, and his timelessly encouraging words to women in science in this letter to a little girl who wanted to be a scientist.

Images courtesy of Chronicle Books © Vladimir Radunsky

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