My copy of The New York Review of Books just arrived, and I spent an entertaining twenty minutes reading Lee Smolin’s lengthy review of two new Einstein books (subscription required unfortunately). You can read the article for yourself and decide what you think about the content, but I was struck as always by Lee’s talent for writing itself – his words are a pleasure to read.
Perhaps what I enjoyed best about the article is Lee’s insistence that it is important for biographers and writers in general to try to understand what kind of people their subjects actually were, as opposed to buying into the public personae that they and other interested parties have created. In Einstein’s case this is particularly true. As the best-known scientist of all time, there exists an elaborate construction of what the man was like and, for most people, the image they have is of the eccentric, kindly, noble, gentle genius, detached from the tedium and minutiae of everyday life. This is the kind of image that gets in the way of understanding the complexities, subtleties, and, frankly, the most interesting details of most people’s lives. It also perpetuates a cartoonish version of scientists, as people to whom real-world concerns, passions, involvements and ambiguities are alien. As Lee writes, regarding Einstein
This possibility challenges the stereotype that scientists and mathematicians tend to be nerds, out of touch with their bodies. […] Some would prefer the myth of Stephen Hawking, who may seem to be a man with no body to speak of, in touch only with the universe (with his necessary support from a team of nurses and students hardly mentioned), than to think too much about Einstein seducing Berlin socialites in his sailboat, or Erwin Schrodinger inventing quantum mechanics during an erotic weekend with a lover and later showing up in Stockholm to receive the Nobel prize with both his wife and his mistress.
Here Lee is focused on why an honest representation of a scientist’s life is crucial to understanding his or her scientific legacy, and the insights that provides into the nature of creativity. But there is another reason to support unembellished, warts-and-all scientific biographies. This myth of the scientist as a strange, detached creature is one of the reasons that more people don’t see science as a viable career path from an early age. After all, not only is the stereotype a rather unattractive one, but it is so starkly different from the way most people (even extremely smart and creative ones) conduct themselves, that many must find it impossible to see themselves as scientists.
The more young people realize that scientists are real people – yes, ones with specific talents and skill sets, but real, three-dimensional people nevertheless – the deeper the talent pool from which the next generation of scientist will arise.