Saturday, April 28, 2007

Feat of Clay

The closest I come to idolizing any person is generally a pretty tepid endorsement. These persons tend to be intellectual rock stars of the day, authors or scientists...and lately, a blogger or two. And my "reasons" for the not entirely reasonable adulation are of two sorts. Either there was selflessness and courage shown in putting forth their ideas in spite of convention and censorship or they really made me think. Making me think is not hard, I do it all the time if only in shallow ways on a bewildering menagerie of topics. But when there is, to me, a new idea or new information on an interest of mine, I am grateful for the stimulation. When diverse topics are pulled together, it delights me. That is how Thomas L Friedman got on my list of favorites: I know how much education played a part in the financial well being and interesting work I now enjoy and I know the small and individual stories of our educations somehow grow out of policies and priorities set by states and cities but come to work as important forces in the economic well being of entire nations. I appreciated his feat of always knitting those threads together for readers.

An op-ed piece of Friedman's in the New York Times this morning titled China needs an Einstein, so do we for which I have the cookie and you probably do not, goes on in the following fashion about Isaacson's new biography of Einstein:
“The whole theme of the last century, and of Einstein’s life,” Mr. Isaacson said in an interview, “is about people who fled oppression in order to go places to think and express themselves. Einstein runs away from the rote learning and authoritarianism of Germany as a teenager in the 1890s and goes to Italy and Switzerland. And then he flees Hitler to come to America, where he resists both McCarthyism and Stalinism because he believes that the only way to have creativity and imagination is to nurture free thought — rebellious free thought.”

In the simplifying and optimistic sweep of Mr. Friedman's theme here, I am now hearing a flip side of Dubya's moronic "they hate us for our freedom". Friedman seems to say Fortune has smiled on us and raised our IQs and incomes because it loves our freedom. I do not think that is an entirely wrong appreciation of the advantages of the nation we aspire to be. But it is an oversimplification that might keep us from addressing the gaps between reality and aspiration.

Have I put words in Mr Friedman's mouth here? That may be, but consider the facts that are glossed over in the article.
  • Einstein wound up in Italy while still in school because his father's business failed and the family moved to Italy where the father took up the management of a factory for electrical machinery. He did not personally run away to Italy, no matter how ill-suited to the stifling German educational model his temperament may have been.
  • By the time Hitler drove Einstein and many other intellectuals from Europe to America, Einstein's great creative works were ten years in the past. He actually produced his first brilliant work while marking time in a Swiss patent office because he could not get a teaching position in universities. That ostracizing of an already renowned intellect would have been the observation for Friedman to hang his theme on.
  • He renounced his German citizen ship to avoid the draft. Had he been a young man in America in the late 1960's, we might be writing about a Canadian citizen. That would not suit Friedman's argument at all.
  • He was in and out of half a dozen European universities from 1908 onward and would do his greatest research before finally settling in Germany where he was not exactly the anti-establishment. As a professor at the University of Berlin and a director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics until 1932, many of his papers were not circulated outside of Germany and its WWI allies.

Let us hope China has all its wars with other nations, cold or not, behind it. If so, the kinds of military and world political pressures that kept some of Einstein's work out of the hands of the world science community are not in effect there. Mrs Greensmile gives India better odds of having the next Einstein and the next Silicon Valley. I never bet against Mrs. Greensmile.

Freedom, its just not that simple.

The rest of Mr. Friedman's piece is devoted to his concern that where the Chinese snuff out imagination in some vague way via political supression of dissent, there is some incompetance or lack in the usual treatments of science in American schools which likewise kill scientific imagination. Says Mr. Friedman:
My favorite Einstein quotation is that “imagination is more important than knowledge.” A society that restricts imagination is unlikely to produce many Einsteins — no matter how many educated people it has.
After reading one of Coturnix posts on what an education he got in Serbia, I would agree strongly with Friedman that our system and its expectations are a crushing let-down. But Friedman just quits his essay at that quote. Left at "imagination is more important than knowledge", you could as well be talking about why fundamentalism is granted equal intellectual respect in discourse on law and national educational policy. There is no war between imagination and knowledge folks and it is the ways we team the two that make progress in science.

Imagination, its just not that simple.

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