I was just listening to an NPR interview (on Fresh Air) of Walter Isaacson talking about his new biography of Einstein: Einstein: His Life and Universe (Simon & Shuster, 2007), and I was caught by something Isaacson said right at the end of the interview. Dave Davies had asked him, “Einstein is a metaphor for kind of unachievable brilliance, I mean, impossible genius. What do you think of that view of him and his work?” Isaacson replied,
I think the great thing to realize is that Einstein wasn’t, say, smarter than Max Planck or Lorenz or some of the other people at the time… but he could think more creatively. He was more willing to think out of the box, to use a cliché. To think, well, maybe we don’t have to be boxed in by what Newton said about space and time. So it wasn’t that he had some unattainable intelligence. It was that he was a little bit more creative, more willing to defy convention and to think a little bit differently from everybody else.
Davies and Isaacson had just been talking about how, even though Einstein was cremated (according to his wishes), a pathologist by the name of Thomas Harvey had kept Einstein’s brain (something about him keeping it in a tupperware container in a cooler!) for something like thirty years, letting researchers look at parts of it, etc. This overblown curiosity about Einstein’s brain was macabre but it wasn’t surprising. We all have this image, as Davies had said, of Einstein as a superhuman intelligence.
So when Isaacson made the comment about Einstein not being smarter than his contemporary mathematicians and theoretical physicists, I was intrigued. It immediately made me think that this story is one to tell students — especially when encouraging them to use freewriting and loop writing in order to get their creative brains charged up, so to speak, and their critical brain relaxed into the background. It’s also another great reason not to teach the boxy and constrained five-paragraph model, not to say “it has to be done this way.”