Einstein, non-conformity and creativity

Impudently yours

Impudently yours

What made Einstein so creative?

It was not his brain, which they literally embalmed after his death, says Walter Isaacson in his biography of the great man, which will be in the bibliography of my book. It was his utter disregard of authority, his refusal to conform.

What Einstein recognized in people like Galileo was “the passionate fight against any kind of dogma based on authority.” Another time, he wrote a friend  that “A foolish faith in authority is the worst enemy of truth.”

“Long live impudence!” he liked to say, and practiced what he preached.

But he did so with a wry humility. He ignored conventional wisdom more than he rebelled against it. It bored him.

But the world astonished him as it usually astonishes only children but not adults. He himself attributed this child-like ability to be amazed to his late development. Because he learned about space and time later than other toddlers, he thought about these things more deeply.

Several things spring to mind randomly:

One is that Einstein (and Newton and Galileo …) represents the best and most complete refutation–and indeed indictment–of all rote learning, all Confucian/Asian education, and indeed much of traditional education full stop.

Another thought, more in tune with the theme of my book, is that even Einstein’s mental freshness could not last. Something happened to ensure that he would spend the first thirty years of his career as a rebel and the next thirty as a resister. “To punish me for my contempt for authority, fate made me an authority myself,” he joked.

What was this treacherous something? It’ll be in Chapter 8 of my book.

16 thoughts on “Einstein, non-conformity and creativity

  1. Is there a way to maintain that existence of knowing enough so as to not be naive, but not so much as you become close yourself off to new ideas? It seems like crossing that threshold is where we start to lose the “freshness” you refer too.

    Could it be that once you have “mastered” something you need to excuse yourself from any further interaction in that field, as you no longer have anything left to contribute. No that you couldn’t take what you have learned from one and apply it to the next, in fact it could be what brings “fresh eyes” to the next problem and allows you to disrupt a new set of experts.

  2. Hi,
    Back from the desert and back to work. Oh, this post is close to my heart.

    One is that Einstein (and Newton and Galileo …) represents the best and most complete refutation–and indeed indictment–of all rote learning, all Confucian/Asian education, and indeed much of traditional education full stop.

    I am all for Rousseau! Rote learning and at times, the Asian model of educational success, e.g. SAT scores and 1+1 =2, can impede true education.

    Try interpreting a Billy Collins or Ferlinghetti poem with the ultimate goal to attain the right answer.

    Nonfiction Dad is right on and if he hasn’t read Emile by Rousseau, I commend it to him.

    Hooray for the Natural Man!
    By the way, was Hannibal a Natural Man?

  3. It’s been said (by some) that Einstein had Asperger’s Syndrome (a mild form of autism). Did Isaacson talk about this?

    “………He ignored conventional wisdom more than he rebelled against it……..”. This statement, plus Einstein’s admiration of Galileo, is a reminder that it was the conventional wisdom that it was Galileo (with help from Copernicus) who discovered that the earth went around the sun.

    Perhaps this is still the conventional wisdom? (it’s a long time since I attended school).

    However, it appears the Greeks knew the earth went around the sun 2000 years before Copernicus and Galileo discovered it. The ancient non-western societies in South America seem to have known this too.

    Is this imparted to today’s schooolchildren?

  4. Non-fiction dad: You’ve put your finger on something that I personally and we at The Economist, the magazine I write for, believe in. Change! Every, oh, three years or so. Here is a former colleague of mine, Chris Anderson, on the topic. I’ll post on it too.

    Cheri: Dying to hear about you in the desert. Will you post about it?
    I feel inadequate because I don’t recall reading Emile. Unless this is where Rosseau talks about his famous “noble savage”, which I do, faintly, recall reading about. Is that the “natural man” you’re talking about?

    Christopher: Isaacson coyly skirts the Asperger’s hypothesis. On page 12 (Hardcover): “The young Einstein’s ability to systematize (identify the laws that govern a system) was far greater than his ability to empathize (sense and care about what other humans are feeling), which have led some to ask if he might have exhibited mild symptoms of some developmental disorder.” (NB Isaacson’s confused verb tense of “have”.)

    (BTW, I didn’t know that the ancient Greeks were heliocentrists. Are you sure about that?)

  5. Regarding your question about whether the Greeks were heliocentrists, check this link: http://www.historyforkids.org/learn/greeks/science/astronomy/sun.htm which contains the paragraph “……….In the Hellenistic period, scientists like Eratosthenes, Anaxagoras, and Aristarchus began really taking observations and making measurements, and then they did figure out that the earth went around the sun…….”.

    That settles it, right?!!

    Had you not pointed out Isaacson’s incorrect use of “have” I would never have known it, since I had to read the offending sentence several times before realising your observation was right.

    But then, I don’t write for the Economist!!

  6. With props to Professor Einstein, since there are/were so few of him, any data used to make conclusions about his ‘way’ are statistically insignificant. Aren’t they?

  7. Yes..Emile or On Education is a 500 page tome in which Rousseau discusses the Noble Savage among many other topics. Instead of chapters, there are books, five of them. Book I takes a look at Emile, Rousseau’s experimental boy from birth-2 years. Book II covers Emile’s life from 2 -12 years, Book III goes from 12-15 years, and Book IV from 15-25 years. Book V includes Sophie, Emile’s ideal partner.

    Rousseau states that one cannot be a citizen and a man at the same time. He then scolds the Carthaginians early in Book I. He discusses Caius, Lucius, and Regulus ( who, Rousseau says, claimed he was a Carthaginian on the grounds that he had to become the property of his masters. So perhaps, I have answered my own question here.

    Nice going, Andreas. The consummate teacher-economist.

    I return to this text often since I have serious concerns about American public education. Harold Bloom’s translation is a smooth but long read.

  8. Christopher: That’s really cool! I’m glad I know that now.

    Mr Crotchety: Yes, but join me for this mind game: Why are there so few of him? Is it because he was so unusual (certainly plausible) or because all the others had a creative potential approaching his but were brainwashed and deadened by conformity?

    Cherie: As shocked as I am that he “scolds the Carthaginians”, I now want to re-read that book.

    Incidentally, it occurs to me that you, with your interest, would loooove this TED talk on why “schools kill creativity.” It also happens to be a fantastic example of British humor.

  9. Andreaskluth: What is “belief” in change? Isn’t it just a fact? There seems to be plenty going on, consciously invoked or otherwise.

    Which reminds me. Just how is it that, apparently, we have the forces of nature at our disposal by the mere exercise of will? I think I’ll get myself a cup of tea…

  10. I’m a fan. I recently read a book, Project Orion, by his son. I’m in awe of his mathematical reconcillation of quantum electrodynamics. I respect his ability to put conscience ahead of his ambition. Furthermore, at the risk of sounding like a heretic, I’m in the ‘climate change’ camp vs. the global warming camp. I am also not a climate scientist, but with respect to the little piece of the puzzle that I do have some expertise, I know one very simple fact. The uncertainty of the measurements that define global warming is larger than the ‘increase.’ The issue, unfortunately, is very polarized. Just because I have my doubts about Al Gore’s global warming doesn’t mean that we need to go out and cut down every tree we can find.

    I particularly respect Freeman’s point that the U.S. achieved economic power by burning coal and oil. Why shouldn’t China and India be permitted the same advantage?

    To that end, check out this piece by Nate Lewis at Cal Tech (Cal Tech is part of your new beat, isn’t it?): http://nsl.caltech.edu/files/ptp-mrs-bulletin-oct-2007.pdf

    The green movement has all the trappings of religion – a religion for the secularist. Here’s a question. If I decide to throw away my newspaper rather than recycle it, what have I done? It’s not a sin. It’s not illegal. Should I feel guilt?

    • I knew it. You guys are piling on my homework. How can I keep up? 😉
      I will find time to look at this. For now, I plead insufficient expertise to debate…

  11. Thought I might weigh in here.

    I have a copy of Case No: CO/3615/2007 in the High Court of Justice from the Queen’s Bench Division Administrative Court in the matter of Stuart Dimmock v.
    Secretary of State for Education and Skills.

    The judicial inquiry into Al Gore ” An Inconvienent Truth,” and political indoctrination in British classrooms.

    Can’t find the web link, but after I read this, I might be able to participate in this discussion.

  12. As a teen, I was resourceful in working on my own car, tuning it, changing the oil, etc.. around 1969…And as a good Boy Scout (an Eagle to boot), I was always proud to help the environment by digging a “grease pit” in the backyard and disposing of the 6 quarts of used oil from my Mustang being advised that it was the right thing to do, just to put it back where it came from…Um..was that wrong of me? While I find Al Gore’s opinions on the environment not only inconvenient but outside the scientific method we expect, I still think it is a good idea to drop your used oil off at Jiffy Lube… Grease pits are definitely out.

    By the way, Mr. Crotchety, I just saw a program that stated as fact that the sun is in the process of completely incinerating the Earth and that it is just the natural cycle of planets. Is that accurate? It was on the Discovery Channel.

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