“Imagination is more important than knowledge,” said Einstein; the man who endured years of telescoping into the unknown and meddling in the invisible fabrics of the universe, the mathematics and physics. We often disconnect math and the arts; the pure and the imagination; the objective and the subjective. Yet math, in the hands and minds of Einstein, came a bit like this: after hours and hours of rumination on math, he took violin breaks, and a little mathematical blessing comes in between the sweeping notes of music.
To anyone who assumes that different study fields are in separate pedagogical boxes; bless them, because they need to know Einstein’s idea of combinatorial creativity.
Einstein himself was never a child of prodigy. He not only skipped classes but grew to lament the German authoritarian school system that later defined his philosophies in learning. From elementary school to his university life, he picked and chose what he wanted to learn from the system. And the rest, he diligently studied at home by himself. Indeed, Einstein loved and much preferred self-learning and self-exploration ever since his uncle brought him books on math and sciences. In fact, he started tinkering with the idea of moving as fast as light –the seed of his groundbreaking special theory of relativity — at the tender age of 17 years old, when he had access to one of the best physics lab and a generous support from the more relaxed education environment in Switzerland.
But Einstein’s lamentation towards a controlled and authoritative education system still highlight his life and this taught him one of the greatest learnings of all –the essence of play.
Play is the greatest form of research
Answering what he’d be if he’s not a scientist, Einstein replied with a sense of humor: musician, plumber, salesman, lighthouse keeper, among many others. Einstein promoted the idea of combinatorial creativity; of dwelling in different fields with such openness that these different building blocks of information create a meaningful network, yielding a “new” idea, even without our conscious effort. And different colors of studies did illuminate him, from music to astronomy, religion to philosophy, theoretical physics to applied math, showing the strong interdisciplinary tendency that influenced his thinking and underlined the creative affinity even in his most logical studies.
There is also a sense of play in how patience he is in pursuing his curiosity. I wouldn’t call Einstein an ambitious person. To a kid who asked how high Einstein’s IQ was, Einstein said 145 and earnestly asked back. In many occasions, he described himself as a merely curious being.
This book then becomes such a heartwarming collection of the meeting point between two highly curious beings, decades and generations apart, with special kind of fondness towards the magical place called Earth and the Universe.
And from time to time, we can see him mirroring back to his past as he replied to the children’s letters –now that he has the opportunity to advise and encourage students.
To his 12-year old son, Hans Albert:
“Don’t worry about your marks. Just make sure that you keep up with your work and that you don’t have to repeat a year. But it’s not necessary to have good marks in everything.”
To the 12-year old girl who considered Einstein as her hero although she was very slow at math herself:
“Do not worry about your difficulties in mathematics; I can assure you that mine are still greater.”
To Tyfanny from South Africa, a girl with interest in science and astronomy:
… Be not worried about “curved space.” You will understand at a later time that for it this status is the easiest it could possibly have. Used in the right sense the word “curved” has not exactly the same meaning as in everyday language.
I hope that yours and your friend’s future astronomical investigations will not be discovered anymore by the eyes and ears of your school-government. This is the attitude taken by most good citizens toward their government and I think rightly so.
On Christmas Day 1917, in an article published in one of the largest newspaper in Germany, Einstein spoke up against the difficult standardized exams that children must take to enter high school. The article was titled “The Nightmare.”
And even to his old age, even with that many burdening questions of the nature of atoms and molecules, not to mention the political pressures and warfare, he still had twinkles in his eyes—a ray of light that shone with wonder.
I wonder if there are questions we often ask when we were kids that are still unanswered until now – where are they? Are they kept hidden in a drawer, a bit dusty – forgotten? Perhaps take it out, dust it off. It might be the key to reinvigorate our relationship with nature and the world and a key to restore peacefulness within ourselves, too.