Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The Einstein-Mozart Connection

Read the article by ARTHUR I. MILLER in The New York Times. (January 31, 2006; registration required, but free.)
Einstein was fascinated by Mozart and sensed an affinity between their creative processes, as well as their histories.
"Einstein once said that while Beethoven created his music, Mozart's "was so pure that it seemed to have been ever-present in the universe, waiting to be discovered by the master." Einstein believed much the same of physics, that beyond observations and theory lay the music of the spheres -- which, he wrote, revealed a "pre-established harmony" exhibiting stunning symmetries. The laws of nature, such as those of relativity theory, were waiting to be plucked out of the cosmos by someone with a sympathetic ear."

I try to conceive of what it would be like to think with a mind like that of Einstein or Mozart, but it is beyond my power of imagination.

This interesting article did trigger a couple of thoughts relevant to the theme of this blog.

1. Contrary to my intuition, it often seems that learning music helps one to think about mathematics (and other things) well, and vice versa. Schooling that focuses on "the three R's" to the exclusion of broadening the mind (and exercising the brain), is probably not a good idea.

2. While knowledge is important, it is not the whole game. What you do with knowledge is perhaps even more important. If we think about analysis as the ability to find meaning in knowledge, then analysis is critically important. Obviously Einstein was a great analyst. But Mozart could construct a whole symphony in his head -- isn't that too a kind of analysis? Training the analytic capacity of individuals is important for social and economic development, as is training people to work in small groups to produce good analysis. Nothing new there. But so too is training the analytic capacity of organizations important. It is not clear how we best do that. (See "Thinking for a living: Knowledge workers need a new kind oforganizationn", The Economist, January 19th, 2006 -- subscription required.) It is also important that other kinds of institutions develop analytic skills! We should consider how good markets are at analyzing supply and demand, and at analyzing the companies providing that supply (or supplying the demand in intermediate markets). How good are our political institutions at analysis?

3. Beyond analysis, there is also the necessary capacity of thought needed to move ahead, to see alternatives for the future, to innovate. The terms "synthesis" and "planning" have been applied to this facility, which is much involved in invention, innovation, and problem solving. Very important is the ability to look at the ways things are being done, and to find modifications that allow them to be done better. This is the ability to manage adaptive change well, to deepen technology mastery, to improve processes. But we tend to reserve our deepest respect for the geniuses who can break old and establish new paradigms. In the sciences, these are people like Newton, Einstein and Darwin. In technology, like Eli Whitney and Thomas Edison. In art, like the leaders of the Italian Renaissance or the French Impressionist school. In music like Mozart or Stravinsky. In politics, like Jefferson, Franklin and Hamilton. In social movements, people like Gandhi or Martin Luthor King. In religion, these are the great prophets. Here too, there is a need for individual excellence and genius, for organizational capacity, and for this capacity to exist in other institutions.

4. Minds like that of Einstein and Mozart seem to be very rare. But perhaps not. How many such minds has mankind failed to develop and utilize because they belonged to poor people in poor countries? Srinivasa Aiyangar Ramanujan, the Indian mathematician, comes to mind as the counter-example. His was a wonderfully gifted mathematical genius. He was schooled through one year of college, but worked on mathematics on his own. It was only after he began to correspond with G. H. Hardy at Cambridge University that the latter brought helped develop Ramanujan's talent and brought his work to the attention of the international community of professional mathematicians. Had Hardy not been open and alert to his genius, Ramanaujan might well have failed to fully develop his talent, to have worked in obscurity, and his notebooks to have been ultimately lost to the world. How many others failed to develop such talents due to poor nutrition or disabilities stemming from their poverty, died before they could mature, failed to develop their talent due to lack of educational opportunities, failed to find a job that would allow them to work at their most productive level, or failed to find an audience for their work? I don't have a clue to the number, but if it were only one Einstein or one Mozart, the world would be worse for that loss! And there are billions of people in the world who are so deprived.

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