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.


GLP said...

Nice writing Nia! You're missing an 'e': ...Einstein was by all reports an attentive father, and even an enthusiastic on 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.

Antonia Malchik said...

Thank you! And especially for the proofreading -- it's so annoying when you publish spelling mistakes :-)

Anonymous said...

I've only just discovered your blog today and am I very interested in joining your discussions as I know that I meet the qualifications of motherhood as I have four children and I aspire to live a life with more intellectualism, but usually fail miserably. Upon first reading this post I immediately thought of H.G. Wells' "Time Machine", which I will be going to the library today to check out. I like to revisit books I've read like they were old friends and this is the third instance this week that the book has come to mind so I know it's time to read it again. Anyhow I thought of the book because in one of the movie adaptations the Time Traveler’s fiancĂ© is killed and he throws himself into his work and that’s how he creates the time machine. He uses the machine to go back in time to save her but every time he goes back to rescue her she is killed again in some way. Here’s where the paradox lies (and ultimately how it is related to your post), the Time Traveler could not use the time machine to save his love because the machine was only built because she was not there. If she had lived he would have never built the machine, he would have been distracted by a life with her and the family they would have had and the time machine would have only been an idea he had that was never fully explored. I think it does take a massive, conscious effort to fully explore the possible versions of our future and grow an idea or a project into fruition. And everyone’s lives are different. And there are periods and cycles in life. The moon waxes and wanes. Einstein didn’t finish all his theories when he was in his thirties, he only discovered the things that he wanted to spend the rest of his life thinking about. That’s why it’s called “life’s work”; you can spend a whole life time doing it. And when kids get older they need less from you than they do when they’re younger. They have their own interests and you have time to explore your interests. Just my take on the whole thing. I really don’t know much about Einstein, but the book sounds interesting. I’ll add it to my list for another time because my reading is headed in another direction right now :)

Antonia Malchik said...

I think we agree, actually. Not everyone can be the same -- and even if they could, how dull of a world would that be to live in? Ugh. I think my only point was that Einstein was able to intensively pursue this work because he didn't have the nagging sense of responsibility toward home and children that so many people -- mothers and fathers -- have. I'm not Einstein, of course, but just taking myself as an example I find it incredibly hard to get on with my work when my son is in the house, even if my husband is taking care of him. I'm conscious of his needs, and of things needing doing around the house. So that point was that Einstein could only employ "phenomenal powers of concentration" because he could shut out the other things around him that needed doing.

And actually, I admire rather than condemn that ability.

I really need to read the HG Wells book. Ashamed to say I haven't yet. So many books, so little time, so many evenings my brain can only handle a mystery novel ...

Thanks so much for participating in the conversation! Your thoughtful comments on 3 posts encourage us to keep writing and thinking :-) And 4 kids! You also give me hope that it's possible to keep thinking with more than 1! Good for you.

Anonymous said...

Even if Einstein had worries,great concentration capability put the mind in a state where all the thoughts are connected with what you are doing not only avoiding outer distractions but also inner distraction.

If you feel too worry you can search for some focus techniques on the internet,and practice it,you'l find soon that worries while trying to concentrate will go away.
I advice u with a technique called pseudo telekinesis,from this link :

Not kidding,improving concentration would make life far more easier,and enjoyable.