The world knows him for his theories on relativity, but it is Albert Einstein’s thoughts on the simple secrets of life and learning that have once again thrust him into the heart and mind of pop culture. While living in war-time Germany and immersed in research that would make him world-famous at the age of 36, Einstein would share profound kernels of insight into life while corresponding with his young son. These simple thoughts demonstrate that he understood a lot more than just quantum physics.
Time recently published a personal letter from Einstein which was written to his 11-year-old son, Hans, who at the time was living with the physicist’s estranged wife, Mileva, in Switzerland. He was responding to the young boy’s newly-discovered interest in the playing of the piano. In Einstein’s response, one can glean insightful wisdom on the mystery of learning. The scientist proclaimed that one learns the most by doing something that brings such joy that “you don’t even notice that the time passes.”
The letter from which this wisdom is extracted is part of a collection of great correspondence in a book entitled Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children. This book features letters and ruminations from several interesting individuals from various walks of life, including Vincent Van Gogh, as well as the ever-colorful Hunter S. Thompson. It is often the personal exchanges between friends and family that expose the humanity of celebrities, which would normally be inaccessible or strictly guarded.
Einstein, so well-known for his science, was quite the written communicator. There are many examples of letters Albert Einstein would write to friends or even to fellow scientific colleagues in regards to the secrets of life and learning. In a newly-released letter written to fellow researcher Marie Curie, Einstein opined on dealing with critics. He advised Curie to ignore the “hogwash” and leave it to the “reptiles” that had created it in the first place. Curie, who would go on to pioneer seminal research on radioactivity, had come under harsh criticism for being a female in a discipline dominated by males. His insight was no doubt a significant source of encouragement. It demonstrated his sensitivity for the often-solitary life of a scientist.
It is fascinating to discover that the researcher who contributed to the creation of an atomic bomb would later write voraciously about the danger of its use. In another recently published work, the Einstein Papers Project, the reader is able to glimpse the brilliance of a very human Einstein – the optimist and philosopher. One specific letter from the 1950’s was written in response to a note he had received from a friend. Its brevity betrays its eloquence and applicability to everyday life. He concluded in this letter that few people really strive for what is right, but their very existence is what “makes life worthwhile.”
It is perhaps the loving note from a doting-but-absentee father that shows Einstein’s most tender side. The proud “Papa,” as he would sign his notes, encouraged the youngster to play things on the keyboard that pleased him, even if they were not part of his regular assignments. He testified to his own missed meals from being enraptured with the worthy pursuit of the joyous. This sweet letter from a father to his son shows an Albert Einstein that had discovered so much more than relativity; it shows a man who had uncovered the true secrets of life.
Opinion by Chris Marion
Picture by Jonathon Colman – Flickr License