“Strange is our situation here upon earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to divine a purpose.
These words are among the many memorable sayings attributed to Albert Einsten. Recognized by many as the greatest physicist of the modern era, perhaps it is also warranted to remember him as a humanitarian, for his concerns and essential appreciation for the human spirit and the mutual endeavors of humanity.
Often, Einstein presented his personal musings on life and nature, in addition to the more deeply scientific writings that would formulate such ground-breaking ideas as General Relativity. In short, the acclaimed scientist was indeed an interdisciplinary scholar, and his thoughts and writings are, of course, still very relevant to us here today.
Hence, in looking at a handful of perennial favorite Einstein quotes to follow, here we will attempt to look at some of the physicists’ ideas as they relate to the universal laws of nature, as well as the search for the mysterious, and even such things as modern culture, political correctness, and the unexplained.
“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
Often, there really are simple answers to complex questions, but this isn’t always the case. However, by this Einstein was referring to a principle tenet of science: that a good scientific theory is capable of explaining or predicting a wide variety of complex phenomena, and often very simply. Indeed, Einstein was willing to put his money where his mouth was in this case, and thus published the very elegant 1920 essay, Relativity: The Special and the General Theory, which the author wrote specifically “for those readers who, from a general scientific and philosophical point of veiw, are interested in the theory, but who are not conversant with the mathematical apparatus.”
“It should be possible to explain the laws of physics to a barmaid.”
Of course, this statement wouldn’t be the kind of thing physicists today might receive accolades for saying. Given enough time, there are those among us today, in an age of extreme political correctness, who might relish the idea of removing Einstein’s likeness from various scientific awards and other media for even saying so. However, spoken from a different cultural perspective, and several decades earlier, Einstein’s intention hadn’t been to disenfranchise every young woman studying physics at the local university, and paying her way through college by bartending on the weekends. Quite the contrary, this statement mirrors his earlier notion that the most fundamental truths of science should be able to explained simply, and again, even to those “who are not conversant with the mathematical apparatus.”
“It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”
There is much that could be said of this particular quote, although one way it is indeed relevant today is the way that Einstein’s persistence as a seeker of knowledge is underscored.
All too often today, people are beholden to instant gratification and a general lack of focus, which is eased along ever-steadily by a continual bombardment with information, sent along straight to our pockets thanks to the marvels of push-notifications. Hence, perhaps we would have more Einsteins today (or Teslas, or the likeness of any number of similar luminaries), if only there were enough of us that could pay attention to problems for longer than a few minutes at a time.
“It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.”
This particular quote may be a personal favorite “Einsteinism” of mine, in large part due to the way that it foreshadows the current education system. We live in an era where, thanks to the marvels of modern technology, self-education from reliable sources of information is more accessible than at any time before. In addition to self education, the avenues for online education through accredited institutions of higher learning are also changing the way people go about learning and training for their careers and education.
However, there is present today, as much as in Einstein’s heyday, an attitude that there is only one “right” way to learn, of for that matter, to think in general. Rather than learning true critical thinking skills, so often today what we glean from having a proper education is that people are quick to go and learn what they are taught, and yet they think no further beyond such fundamental ways of thinking (yes, we’re inferring that there a certain degree of scientific dogma that exists amidst the scientific establishment).
Had Einstein himself not been one to think well enough “outside the box” when it came to knowledge, education, and the pure act of discovery, he likely would not have made the groundbreaking discoveries he achieved, and thus become the quotable luminary that we recognize today. Hence we see the fundamental beauty underlying this particular quote on maintaining curiosity and critical thinking, even (and especially) after obtaining a formal education.
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.”
This is another of my very favorite Einstein quotes, although as we will see in a moment, Einstein used similar wording on other occasions to express the same idea. First, we should point out that the short passage above was only one part of a broader quote, of which the portion immediately following the sentence above read as follows:
“He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead —his eyes are closed. The insight into the mystery of life, coupled though it be with fear, has also given rise to religion. To know what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness.”
As mentioned earlier, there was a similar passage that appeared in 1932, published in a statement by Einstein titled “My Credo.” The great physicist read the passage in question for an audio recording, which was intended to benefit the German League of Human Rights. In the recording, Einstein concluded saying the following words, which should be familiar to us by now:
“The most beautiful and deepest experience a man can have is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principle of religion as well as of all serious endeavour in art and science. He who never had this experience seems to me, if not dead, then at least blind. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious. To me it suffices to wonder at these secrets and to attempt humbly to grasp with my mind a mere image of the lofty structure of all there is.”
Einstein’s ideas, ranging from those in relation to scientific inquiry, to those pertaining to life in general, have remained relevant over time largely because of Einstein’s own broad-thinking. We can credit that open-mindedness (and a his penchant for sticking with problems) for his many discoveries, and in seeking to emulate Einstein’s own thoughtful persistence, perhaps new discoveries can be made in the future that will shed light on our universe in ways similar to what the great physicist managed to achieve in his lifetime.