Einstein’s brain and thinking outside the box

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.”


2 thoughts on “Einstein’s brain and thinking outside the box

  1. There’s so much stuff telling me how to think I don’t know what to think.

    You’ve been doing consultations for almost hour and a half. I’m sitting here feeling bad for you.

  2. Hi, Chanel.
    Yeah, I know the feeling (too much stuff telling us how to think). But hopefully this kind of thinking outside the box will help people feel freer, less pressured from outside themselves and will let their minds create.

    Oh, thanks for feeling sorry for me. :-) The only thing that was a little frustrating about those couple hours of consultations was that I had purposefully scheduled the student consultants (including you ) as available during those times (since they need the experience). But sometimes students make a big enough point of asking specifically for me that we override the schedule to give them their wish. They either know me already or someone has said, “she’s good.” But that phenomenon… I don’t know… I’m not sure it’s a good thing – well, not if it happens too often. It seems like it’s a case, like Jesus said, of those who have being given more, and those who have not, even what they have being taken away from them.

    It reminds me of lots of similar situations in life, situations in which what needs to or what SHOULD happen is what is hardest to MAKE happen. E.g., how people with a strong income often (usually?) pay less in interest than those who are struggling more. And just generally – especially economically, I guess – how “those who have more” get more and “those who have less” lose what they already have. The rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.

    Okay, I just went from writing center dynamics to economic injustice. Sorry! My mind… sometimes I gotta love it, sometimes I gotta wonder about it… ;-)

    Thanks again for all your commenting, Chanel. I love comments :-)


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