April 27, 2007
China Needs an Einstein. So Do We.
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
I’ve been thinking about China as I read Walter Isaacson’s new biography of Albert Einstein. China isn’t even mentioned in the book — “Einstein: His Life and Universe” — but Mr. Isaacson’s stimulating and provocative retelling of Einstein’s career plays into two very hot debates about China.
First, what does Einstein’s life tell us about the relationship between freedom and creativity? Or to put it bluntly: Can China become as innovative as America, can it dominate the 21st century, as many predict, when China censors Google and maintains tight political controls while establishing its market economy?
Second, how do we compete with China, no matter how free we are, when so many of China’s young people are studying math and science and so many of ours are dropping out? Or to put it more bluntly: If Einstein were alive today and learned science the boring way it is taught in so many U.S. schools, wouldn’t he have ended up at a Wall Street hedge fund rather than developing theories of relativity for a Nobel Prize?
Mr. Isaacson’s take on Einstein’s life is that it is a testimony to the unbreakable link between human freedom and creativity.
“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.”
If you look at Einstein’s major theories — special relativity, general relativity and the quantum theory of light — “all three come from taking rebellious imaginative leaps that throw out old conventional wisdom,” Mr. Isaacson said. “Einstein thought that the freest society with the most rebellious thinking would be the most creative. If we are going to have any advantage over China, it is because we nurture rebellious, imaginative free thinkers, rather than try to control expression.”
My gut tells me that’s right, but my mind tells me not to ignore something Bill Gates said in China the other day: that putting PCs, education and the Internet in the hands of more and more Chinese is making China not only a huge software market, “but also a contributor to this market. Innovation here is really at a rapid pace.”
Will China hit a ceiling on innovation because of its political authoritarianism? That’s what we need to watch for.
In the meantime, we should heed another of Mr. Isaacson’s insights about Einstein: he found sheer beauty and creative joy in science and equations. If only we could convey that in the way we teach science and math, maybe we could nurture another Einstein — male or female — and not have to worry that so many engineers and scientists in our graduate schools are from China that the classes could be taught in Chinese.
“What Einstein was able to do was to think visually,” Mr. Isaacson explained. “When he looked at Maxwell’s equations as a 16-year-old boy, he visualized what it would be like to ride alongside a light wave and try to catch up. He realized those equations described something wondrous in reality.
“By being able to visualize and think imaginatively about science, he was able to see what more academic scientists failed to see, which is that as you try to catch up with a light beam, the waves travel just as fast, but time slows down for you. It was a leap that better-trained scientists could not make because they did not have the visual imagination.”
If we want our kids to learn science, we can’t treat science as this boring or intimidating thing. “We have to remind our kids ... that a math equation or a scientific formula is just a brush stroke the good Lord uses to paint one of the wonders of nature,” Mr. Isaacson said, “and we should look at it as being as beautiful as art or literature or music.”
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. But a society that does not stimulate imagination when it comes to science and math won’t either — no matter how much freedom it has.
So my sense, from reading Mr. Isaacson’s book, is that if Einstein were alive today, he would be telling both America and China that they have homework to do.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company