recess radio program

Albert Einstein's Year
    by John Cech

Albert Einstein is back, relatively speaking, that is. It's been proclaimed his year, because it's the hundreth anniversary of the publication of four of his most important scientific papers. Einstein is the also the subject of number of new books for young people, including writer/illustrator Don Brown's Odd Boy Out, a picture book for younger readers about Einstein's boyhood. This is at once a funny, touching, and engaging work about one of the most creative minds of the twentieth century. At points, Einstein sounds like a deadpan comic, like the time when he was three and his parents presented him with what they called a surprise -- a new baby sister. Without missing a beat, Albert asked, "Where are the wheels?" But Brown also reveals a side of Einstein that is astonishing in its clarity and determination. Rather than knuckle under the rote education that he was being asked to submit to in Germany in the late nineteenth century, Albert asserted: "I would rather let all kinds of punishment descend upon me than learn to rattle something off by heart."

Our interest in Einstein is, in part, a fascination with genius. The ancient Romans thought that we were all given a genius when we were born, a kind of personal, guiding spirit that determined the kinds of talents we brought to our lives. For the Romans, genius was a matter of luck, and our genius might lead to a just a little or a great deal. In the 19th century, genius was thought of as something rare and nearly mythical, and an almost exclusively male club. For much of the 20th century, we regarded genius as a function of IQ scores -- until Howard Gardner reshaped this thinking in his book, Frames of Mind. Gardner identified eight kinds of intelligence --including musical, mathematical, spatial, kinesthetic, and ecological -- and, in the process made genius once again democratic and universal.

Still, one of the stereotypes about genius that persists with us today is that it is quirky, mistunderstood, and often the brunt of the jokes of all the regular folks. Just think of Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius, our new myth for kids of how the technological nerd can ultimately save the day. I suppose that is why everyone who writes about Einstein loves to tell and retell the story of his childhood, which began with his parents' disappointment over the shape of his head, and continued with his slow start at talking (he didn't really begin until he was three), his somewhat checkered performance at school (at one point he'd even dropped out, he was so bored), and his settling in, as a young college graduate, to a rather routine life as a patent officer in Bern, Switzerland. One of the amazing things about genius, though, is its often sudden appearance; and with Einstein this took the form of his publishing, in 1905, when he was only 26 years old, four of the papers that would revolutionize modern physics, among them his "Special Theory of Relativity." Who knew that the man who approved of the triangular shape of the Tobler choclate bar was also thinking about how light could be bent in space? Einstein clearly knew how to nurture his own imagination. Throughout his life, he said, he always kept a copy of Grimm's Fairy Tales on his nightstand, for inspiration, to remind himself that the solutions to problems always began with "Once Upon a Time."

Copyright 2005 John Cech

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"Recess!" is a co-production of the University of Florida's Center for Children's Literature and Culture and WUFT-FM, "Classic 89."