A table, a chair, a bowl of fruit and a violin; what else does a man need to be happy?
- Albert Einstein
Photo courtesy http://www.mlahanas.de/Physics/Bios/AlbertEinstein.html
During my recent travels to Asheville NC and Ogden UT I have been listening to the biography of Albert Einstein, written by Walter Isaacson in 2007. I am only halfway through - it is a long book- but I wanted to get my thoughts down now instead of waiting until I finish, which at my current pace may be in about six weeks or so.
Isaacson's book is the first biography written about Einstein since many of his personal correspondences were made available to the public. The book itself is a fascinating, in depth look at a fascinating and remarkable person. Einstein is one of the greatest scientists who ever lived, and without him, much of what modern physics and astronomy is today would not be possible.
But Einstein, as the book reveals, was more than just a great scientist. He was a decent family man, in spite of his divorce and two marriages, and also dabbled in politics and human rights, dangerous occupations for a Germanic Jew in the 1920s and 1930s.
The life of Albert Einstein is also relevant for readers of this blog, as he is often mentioned as one suspected of being in the autism spectrum (such diagnoses did not exist during his time). In fact, Mr. Isaacson goes to great lengths to discount Einstein's association with autism several times in this book. His main reason as to why Einstein could not be on the autism spectrum is because he was able to forge life long friendships with several people, including the two women whom he married and his children.
I, for one, have no doubt that if Einstein were alive today, he would be considered as being on the autism spectrum.
The fact is, Einstein exhibits many of the characteristics of someone on the autism spectrum. As a young child, his speech was often echolalaic. Despite his life long friendships, Einstein was very much a loner, only rarely reaching out to one of his friends to assist him. His friends were, in fact, limited to fellow scientists and colleagues, people whom he associated with professionally as well as personally. It was a common professional interest that blossomed into romance between Einstein and his first wife, and his second wife was a family cousin he had known since they were children, who pretty much served as his caretaker.
Most importantly, Einstein, like Temple Grandin, thought in pictures.
Anyone who's taken physics knows that many of the equations are a jumbled mass of numbers, letters, Greek letters, integrals etc. that somehow come together to help explain our universe. And for many of us, when we see these equations, that's all we see - a jumbled mass of numbers, letters, Greek letters, integrals, etc. But that's not what Einstein saw. When Einstein saw these equations, he saw himself riding on a light beam, or a light particle, or on a train traveling at the speed of light, and he could visualize what was happening in space and time. That's why many of his professional papers started out with a thought experiment - a way to get the reader to see what he sees, so they may get a better understanding of the physics that follows. And his thoughts were revolutionary and earth shattering, totally counterculture to modern physics at that time.
Which brings up another remarkable thing about Einstein - he was not afraid to question everything. He was defiant almost to a fault. Personally, he married his first wife against the wishes of most everyone - family, friends, colleagues. Professionally, if his thought experiments didn't not correlate with what were the accepted norms of physics, he didn't question his thoughts, he questioned the accepted norms of physics. Politically, he refused to join other colleagues of German-Jewish descent in trying to assimilate themselves into the German culture to gain acceptance.
In most cases, Einstein was proven correct.
It reminds me of another great Nobel Laureate Physicist, Richard Feynman, who titled his second autobiography "What Do You Care What Other People Think?"
Einstein often looked upon the world with bemusement. When a rival scientist held a public forum to disavow Einstein and his Jewish science, Einstein, to the shock of many, showed up as part of the crowd. He didn't shout his rival down, but just took it all in with more of a curiosity. He did the same as he was mobbed on his "world tour" sponsored by the Zionist movement. He didn't much care about how he dressed or looked in public; witness him being noted for his unkempt hairstyle.
When I was in grad school the first time (my failed attempt to get a grad degree in chemistry), I had a roommate who's really felt like he knew it all, and who's sole ambition in life was to go back to his college reunion driving a Porsche and proudly tell all his former classmates the he owned his. When he ultimately flunked out of the Ph.D. program and was offered a chance to get a Masters degree, he refused, saying that a Masters degree was beneath him. Sadly, I knew plenty of scientists and scientist wannabes that had that same ego-driven mentality.
Einstein didn't care about the money; he used most of it, including his winnings from the Nobel Prize, to ensure his sons would be raised properly after his divorce. Nor did he care about the fame he had earned thanks to the general theory of relativity. He cared about the science, and making sure that the science was right. He didn't set out to overturn existing thoughts on space, time, and the universe, but when his thoughts steered him in that direction, he didn't hesitate stepping through the door.
How wonderful would life be if all people needed to be happy was a table, a chair, a bowl of fruit, and a violin?
Einstein is, and will continue to be, an inspiration for me as I look ahead to Helena's future in this world.
If you have not already done so, I highly recommend you read this book about a remarkable man. Or do as I am doing, and grab the 18 CDs and listen to it.
You will not be disappointed.
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