Alternate Memoirs are a series of posts where I explore lesser-known passions of famous individuals: the art of designers, the designs of mathematicians, etc.. Other than being fascinating, this shows how rich and complex these people were, beyond just what they were famous for.
You know what sounds like a futile exercise? Perusing a list of famous mathematicians and systematically googling “mathematician-name art” with each name.
Sounds like a punchline to some terrible joke, right?
Well it turns out you don’t have to look far. One of the most famous physicists of all time, whose name has become synonymous with intelligence, was highly creative, challenging the distinction between scientific discovery and artistic expression. He played the violin and the piano, and considered musical and artistic expression to be an integral part of his life and work.
But first, a note on words: Einstein was not strictly a mathematician in all senses of the world; he was mainly a scientist. He was not interested in the study of mathematics for their own sake, and didn’t contribute a great many advancements to pure mathematics. He did, however, know the subject well and use it to great effect—and more importantly, he’s an example of the creativity and artistry hidden in rational, logical disciplines
When confronted with the words “scientist” or “mathematician,” what do you picture? Einstein’s face, maybe. But more likely than not, the image is one of an intelligent, eccentric, rational individual. Maybe they’re on the impersonal, dispassionate, or even socially awkward side.
But what was Einstein like? Smart, surely, but he was far from dispassionate. He’s been likened on many occasions to Picasso, of all people. According to Gary Johnstone, writer and director of NOVA film Einstein's Big Idea, “The great scientist was also just as bohemian in his lifestyle as the great artist. He was equally promiscuous, poetic, and playful.”
Beyond lifestyle, the role of intuition in Einstein’s work is perhaps even more telling. Where science and math are both logically rigorous fields, Einstein’s words and behavior revealed that, for him, scientific progress was more instinctual, beautiful, and, well, artistic. His second wife wrote in a letter that “Music helps him when he is thinking about his theories. He goes to his study, comes back, strikes a few chords on the piano, jots something down, returns to his study.”
You couldn’t write a more poetic image if you tried. The great scientist, the beacon of innovation and new paradigms, needs music to inspire his work.
Quotes coined by Einstein about creativity and artistry proliferate on the internet, often boiling down to "All great achievements of science must start from intuitive knowledge. I believe in intuition and inspiration..." rather than logic and rationale. Einstein’s private conception of a scientist was much more artistic than the average person’s.
His own scientific process was an artistic one in which he self-reportedly used “images, feelings, and even musical architectures” to reach his conclusions, considering any verbal or logical output to be a “translation” of these initial solutions. He once said, “I very rarely think in words at all. A thought comes, and I may try to express it in words afterwards.”
So Einstein’s over here coming up with the theory of general relativity by playing the piano and imagining pictures. Whatever happened to the scientific method so fiercely championed by any and all proponents of science? Why might music have been the key to Einstein’s intellectual breakthroughs?
There are a few ways to answer that question. One has to do with neuroplasticity, or the idea that the human brain can change itself by learning new things or having new experiences. Learning to play an instrument is a very powerful force when it comes to neuroplasticity because it engages so many different parts of the brain—you have to control your body (often two hands doing two different things at once), look at either your sheet music or your fingers, hear the music, respond to the sensory feedback from touching the instrument, and even engage your memory and emotions. It’s a very complex task.
As a result, learning and playing an instrument forms more neural connections in your brain and literally makes you smarter and more creative. It’s not a one-time thing, either. A study of Swedish pianists indicated that white matter volume within the brain was correlated with the number of years of musical experience.
There’s also some evidence and speculation that music is related to space-time. Ernst Mach, Einstein’s mentor, believed that music was analogous to space, citing the fact that a listener can differentiate between different notes and tell what “order” they are in. He also argued that this was why playing two notes at once created a harmony instead of a single intermediate note—the two tones are fixed at different points in “space” and cannot blend.
Gravity itself has been described as an analogy for music with a “tonal center”—such as the work of Einstein’s favorite composers, Bach and Mozart. Much like planets in a solar system, the notes of one of these songs “orbit” the tonal center, some weaker and farther away and some closer and more powerfully. To hear for yourself, listen to the beginning of Bach’s Partita for Violin No. 3 and hum the note that sounds the most important—that’s the tonal center, the “sun” in this musical solar system.
Music as an analogy for space-time is a very abstract idea. It’s not something that can be proven or disproven like a mathematical proof or a statement of fact. But if there’s any merit to the analogy, it could explain why Einstein the scientist had to be Einstein the musician to develop his theories of relativity.
There’s an important distinction here, as well, between the work Einstein did and the work of most scientists. He wasn’t performing experiments to confirm an incremental new discovery. On the contrary, he conceptualized an entirely revolutionary new way of thinking about the universe, one that seemed contradictory on its surface.
So of course there’s room for science and math that isn’t as creative and instinctual; in fact, it’s the incremental, logic-driven work of these fields that laid the foundation for general relativity and then built on it afterwards. Only a very few can and should be an “Einstein.”
His story reveals, however, a need to reexamine what may be more commonly held paradigms about the lack of creativity in science and mathematics. More than just an enchanting story of a dead genius, Einstein’s creativity is an affirmation of the power of music and art in all facets of human life. One needn’t be a concert pianist—or a genius, for that matter—to benefit from a little artistry.
Learn to think a little more like Einstein and develop your visual thinking skills—try starting here or here.