Friday, June 22, 2007

More Einstein

I’m reading Walter Isaacson's book about Einstein, which means I’m writing about Einstein, which is most likely more about Einstein than you ever wanted to know, or you'd also be reading it. This may be the first book I’ve been hooked on since I read The Devil in the White City in England last summer, an indication of how traumatic all that buying, selling, renovation and moving here, there, and everywhere was because if I don’t have a good book going and music I’m addicted to (currently, still, the Silversun Pickups, along with new Arcade Fire and Cat Power) I don't feel fully alive.

A long biography like this one is fun because it just goes on and on, so that I lead my life for a while, then Einstein’s life, then mine again, then his, etc. What’s most interesting is the random coalescence of personality traits, experiences, and opportunities that made Einstein’s achievements possible—being born into a family who had an electrical business and were always applying for patents, working in a patent office (the only job, it seemed, he could get) where he learned, more than ever, not to take anything for granted (“When you pick up an application,” his boss instructed, “think that everything the inventor says is wrong”), being too rebellious for academia, being interested in philosophy as well as science, having close friends with whom he could talk endlessly and work out his ideas. If any one of these things and more had been missing, our world might be very different.

But even though this book is incredibly detailed (down to what Einstein ate when he was with his friends—sausages—and how once they gave him caviar, which he’d never had, as a special treat, and he was so busy talking he didn’t notice) Isaacson goes on about how Einstein formulated his ideas and then says—poof!—he published a paper. Here's a man who's working in a patent office, has no significant contacts, and he publishes a paper that sets the scientific establishment on its ear. How? Where? Did he have a blog? Those of us whose work has to do with publishing would like to know. Also Isaacson is always referring to “thought experiments” as if we all know what thought experiments are and how they work (well, maybe you know and actually perform them all the time, and I'm just out of the loop).

But I’m quibbling. I’m enjoying the insight into another field, the way I always love listening to shop talk among musicians, chefs, or last weekend, two poets arguing the merits of fellow poet Jorie Graham (who I just learned from Wikipedia is the daughter of sculptor Beverly Pepper and gets the Graham part from having married into the publishing family).

So I’ll leave you with this tidbit: “A new idea comes suddenly and in a rather intuitive way," Einstein said, "but intuition is nothing but the outcome of earlier intellectual experience.”

The romantic mythology around the creative act would have it otherwise, but the truth is, yes, we do all this hard work, and intuition is the payoff.

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