Thursday, October 15, 2009

Did Einstein have phenomenal powers of concentration? Or was he simply free of responsibilities?

I've been mulling over this question since reading Einstein: His Life and Universe. Where does personal responsibility infringe on a person's powers of concentration? What level of responsibility-feeling do we have to relinquish in order to devote ourselves to the task at hand?

The author described a scene in which Einstein sat at his desk completely engrossed in a physics problem while the children ran around playing and yelling. "Which shows," he said, "what powers of concentration Einstein had."

This statement ruffled me. The scene: a man sitting at a desk, pen in hand, oblivious to the children playing around him and likely housework or cooking of some kind being done by his wife in another room.

No, this isn't a feminist response. What I found curious was that the author wasn't quite imaginative enoughg to apply a role of responsibility to the powers of concentration. Einstein may have had great such powers -- many people do -- but the reason he was able to practice them was that he felt no responsibility for what else was going on in the room: care of the children, attention to them, the need for meals to be cooked and clothes to be washed and floors to be cleaned. Mostly the children.

There is a great difference, somewhere in there, between someone who can concentate in distracting situations, and someone who can employ such concentration when they feel at some level responsible for the care and welfare of a household, or a relationship, or a pet.

Einstein was by all reports an attentive father, and even an enthusiastic one when his children were old enough to teach and on the few occasions they were in the same place. But it was understood that his energies were saved for his research, and his thinking.

It is easy to wonder how many women today have that luxury, and men, too. After years of trial and mostly error, I have discovered that I cannot write when other people are in my home, including my spouse and child. Nobody thinks anything of interrupting me to ask what we should do for dinner, or where I've put the phone bill, or if I could please come down and show them where the strawberry patch is among the weeds.

I can concentrate through all this, although it gets harder to slip back into my writing bubble and some days I just give up. I prefer reserving my efforts for noisy coffee shops or bars, where I can concentrate just fine and nobody bugs me.

Harder than concentration is shaking the sense of responsibility. Say my husband Ian is looking after our son, while I catch up on some work in front of a notebook or computer. John cries for some reason. I ignore it, knowing Ian has his own way of parenting; I try not to interfere or impose mine on him. But John keeps crying and maybe my husband is engrossed in his email.

I don't want to parent for him, don't want to tell him what to do. He's given me a gift of time to work, and I want to take it. But I can't let go. I am pulled, always, every day, by responsibilities to my son, responsibilities to my husband, and responsibilities to my work. At this point in my son's life, on any given day, the responsibility to him is strongest. Because I spend more time with him every day than Ian does, I can tell that John wants his crayons, or for someone to let the plastic shapes out of his ball so he can put them back in, or he's lost his funky chicken somewhere.

Or maybe I'm trying to ignore the litany that comes from being a full-time mother: it's almost time for his nap, but he hasn't had lunch yet, and Ian doesn't know quite how to make the eggs so he likes them, and he should really take John outside to play because it's rained the last 4 days and he needs some sunshine, and I still need to pick up something at the farm for dinner or we'll end up eating pasta again and we're both trying to stick with eating more healthy, more vegetables.

And on and on. I bet Einstein never worried about whether someone was getting enough vegetables, or about cooking his young sons a nutritious lunch in good time for them to take a nap.

It's not as if it's easy for my husband, either. After all, he works hard and doesn't get much time to check his email, or just watch the news or dig in the garden or read a book.

The point is simply one of language. I felt ruffled because the author's admiration of Einstein implied that others (usually women) who can not work in the midst of their yelling children are somehow lesser beings.

Einstein of course had responsibilities, and took them seriously, especially in the area of providing for his family. This was not an egomaniac who expected all to be sacrified to his work. But it was his lack of responsibility in the area of home life that allowed him to practice his powers of concentration. Einstein was partly able to do what he did because he knew that someone else was taking care of the house and the children, of the little responsibilities that comprise daily life -- the daily life so demanding, so attention-consuming, so full of multi-tasking, that it keeps so many of us from concentrating on anything at all.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Wanting more from life: the starvation of the intellect

I recently spent a very satisfactory month working my way through the 500-page biography of Albert Einstein, Einstein: His Life and Universe, by Walter Isaacson. Satisfactory on many levels, as it was solidly written, well put together, and spent a great deal of time covering aspects of science and mathematics that will never fail to capture the hungry parts of my imagination and intellect -- even if that intellect is both out of practice and full of holes to begin with.

While reading, cirled repeatedly back to the same questions that prompted Julia and I to start Pooplosphy in the first place: where are the great discoveries and discussions of the current age occurring? Where are the collections of such immense minds as Einstein, Niels Bohr, Max Planck, Marie Curie, Schroedinger, and Heidigger now? Einstein's biographer tells of the meetings these people had, the letters and ideas they exchanged, the longs walks they took together through Berlin and the Alps, hashing out the issues of cutting-edge physics and mathematics.

Walking, together, and talking, while trying to piece together a tangible understanding of the nature of the universe.

Reading of these men and women made me both sad and envious, on many levels. Part of this is due to my own lack of understanding. Although I started university by studying physics, and ended with a degree in mathematics, these subjects were always far more difficult for me than for my colleagues. The four-year university format doesn't allow much room for the slow learner, or the one who needs a more foundational understanding of the nature of mathematics and science herself before delving fully into, say, real analysis and quantum mechanics.

The intricacies of general relativity will probably always be a closed book to me, even if described ten ways from Sunday using any amount of metaphor and analogy. Although I regret the non-genius nature of my rather woolly intelligence, I have come to terms with this fact. It detracts in no way from the pleasure I find in having long discussions in which a knowledgeable friend attempts to deepen my understanding. In fact, I assume it gives both of us pleasure; after all, I enjoy helping other writers improve their work and unearth their own literary voices. Why should not a physicist friend enjoy leading me to some glimmer of insight into Einstein's theories?

But this leads me to the aspect of envy that mixes with the sadness. While in the midst of this book, I made a quick trip back to the city of my university days for a roommate's wedding. I spent three hours wandering the campus and surrounds that had been home to the happiest years of my life.

The sadness came when I realized they had been the happiest. Yes, I now have a wonderful spouse and beloved child and a house in the country, but my mind seems to have spent the last ten years asleep. If I cannot have wilderness at my feet, I thrive equally on intellectual stimulation, perhaps even more so. And stimulation is what I found in those four years.

I have a great-grandfather whose occupation was to sit in his temple or his house and study the Talmud while his wife took care of everything else. He was so brilliant that famous chess players from all over the world came to his Ukranian village to play against him because he would not travel. The greatest dream of both my grandparents on that side was to achieve a Ph.D. in engineering. On the other side, my grandmother was a rare woman who pursued a master's in history in the 1930s and my grandfather went back to study politics in his 80s.

So maybe the intellectual thirst runs thick in my blood.

The jealousy stepped in as I paused in the coffee shop near my college (the place I used to earn my paycheck in the early mornings, my hair and math texts always full of the scent of roasted coffee) to read my book and step back just for a moment to the voracious student I used to be. Sipping coffee that reeked of nostalgia, I read of Einstein walking all over Berlin with his colleagues, talking their ideas over for hours.

That, I realize, is what I am missing in my life: the ability to walk out of the house to meet a friend and discuss anything from symbolic logic to what makes Jane Austen great, not as a set of thoughts in passing, but as the passionate focus of interest for a few hours.

And then, of course, to return to problems of potty training and why I can't get my toddler to eat anything more colorful than a scrambled egg. I wouldn't wish to lose the understanding being a mother has given me, both of the supposed nature of the universe, and of the true importance of the seemingly mundane activities of everyday life. But it is always easier to bend my mind to the problems of parenthood when I have stretched it to encompass the problems of quantum mechanics.

Right now the imbalance is extreme in favor of motherhood. Where does your average housewife intellectual find such connection? Only on the Internet? Or through literary magazines such as Brain, Child? After reading Einstein's biography, it seems a poor life in which you cannot walk out your door with a good friend to discuss whatever most stimulates you both.

Shortly after finishing this book, and moving on to a much less interesting one about Blaise Pascal, I asked my husband to help me comprehend, just a little, general relativity. Einstein's great thought experiment ("what is it like to run alongside a light beam?") does not translate to a metaphor I can grasp, and my husband does, after all, have a Ph.D. in physics.

We spent a pre-toddler hour tangling ourselves in the knottiness of quantum space and the question of whole numbers and what they really represent, among other issues. This while he got ready for work and I folded laundry. Usually he's in a pre-coffee stupor and I'm frantically trying to write before our son wakes up.

I realized that this is a level on which we used to talk with each other all the time, when we met back in college. But modern life, outside of academia, makes little room to sate the frivolously intellectual appetite. Our spare hours are more often spent reading novels or hanging out on Twitter, when we're not talking about our son's development, household finances, work, or what the hell to do about the woodchuck under the front path.

I realized that the only intellectual friend I have physically living in my town -- my spouse -- is the one who, like me, has little spare time.

One could argue that physics was Einstein's job, and the job of those in the sphere he worked. But it wasn't, not at first. It was his passion -- Einstein worked in a patent office, and wrote physics articles in his limited spare time, until he became well-known enough to procure a university position. But even before he entered academia, he worked and studied and exchanged letters and discussions with some of the greatest minds of his day.

Maybe this life rarely happens outside the walls of academe. Maybe people like me should always move to university towns, progressive places, walkable communities that have ample supplies of both passionate intellectuals and attachment parenting practitioners.

Is it too much to ask in life -- a chance to study in depth, to absorb the gift of wilderness, to feed insatiable curiosity, to raise your children with love and intellectual stimulation and local organic food among like-minded people, to challenge your mind and understanding, to travel the world, to pursue your own creativity and feed others', to have a family dinner every night and still get enough sleep?

Most of us want more from life than what we've got. Right now I'd be grateful for long walks with a kind genius. Or at least a friend, smarter than I, who can explain Einstein's relativity in language I can understand.