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Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Einstein and dreams

How smart was Albert Einstein? That’s a question David Kestenbaum of NPR’s Morning Edition was asking yesterday. I’ve been fascinated with the whole Einstein Centennial this year. While at a traffic light at Carnegie and E. 55th, I scribbled into my notebook a beautiful image he shared.

When Einstein was 16 years old he wondered what it would be like to ride alongside a ray of light. I'm reminded of an image from Antoine de Saint-Exupery's "The Little Prince" of the title character traveling from planet to planet. Anyway, that early image later developed into his Theory of Special Relativity. But it all began with a young boy who wanted to know what light looked like to a moving observer.

Though he often admitted that words failed him (during a Rorschach test instead of describing a bird with words, he flapped his arms while hopping around the room), Einstein found the poetic in his visual imagery. He let his visions and dreams wander far enough to take him — and the world — to places we couldn't possibly have imagined.

2005 is dubbed World Year of Physics and the American Institute of Physics has some terrific information about Einstein’s theories and his impact on science and the world. There are some remarkable parallels between science and creativity that I am only now beginning to understand. It was a relationship Einstein knew existed, as evidenced in his essay ”The World As I See It”:

”The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed.”

I was never a strong math or science student. Physics was, for me, the most understandable fields of science. Of course it could also have been that Mr. Brown was an exceptional teacher. But I think it was more that my very visual mind could more easily grasp the concepts that I could see occurring before me. Besides there’s a bit of the dreamer in the physicist, something very close to my own sometimes-faraway sensibilities.

One afternoon, about 10 years ago, I flew through a wonderful little novel called, “Einstein’s Dreams,” written by Alan Lightman, a professor of physics and writing at MIT. I’ve been intrigued with Einstein ever since, specifically with his ability to dream of possibilities never imagined. Now to ensure we as adults don't quash that wild abandon and the extraordinary imaginative powers in our children…

Grown-ups like numbers. When you tell them about a new friend, they never ask questions about what really matters. They never ask: "What does his voice sound like? What games does he like best? Does he collect butterflies?" They ask: "How old is he? How many brothers does he have? How much does he weigh? How much money does his father make?" Only then do they think they know him. If you tell grown-ups, "I saw a beautiful red brick house, with geraniums at the windows and doves on the roof…," they won't be able to imagine such a house. You have to tell them, "I saw a house worth a hundred thousand francs." Then they exclaims, "What a pretty house!" — "The Little Prince," Antoine de Saint-Exupery

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