I recently finished a biography of Albert Einstein, written by Walter Isaacson. It took a good two months to read because it was long, but also because many sections about his discoveries were in depth, and I found myself reading them slowly, going back, reading them again, and so forth.
Of course, I'm not a scientist, much less a physicist. But I found that reading sections about concepts of which I had little understanding, I still managed to gain insight into the man, and how he thought and collaborated with others. He visualized problems in what he called thought experiments; some of the greatest thinking ever done by a man. In a short period in 1905, he wrote most of his greatest papers about the theory of relativity. He was only twenty-five years old at the time and fully employed in a Swiss patent office. He kept that job for many years, as he was unable to get a permanent position to teach, even in a high school. This was after he was recognized as one of the world's greatest physicists and was also partly the result of the prejudice he experienced because he was Jewish.
Einstein's greatest weakness, he freely admitted, was his mathematics. As a result he collaborated with some of the great mathematicians of the day, as they tried to prove his revolutionary formulas.
During the time I was reading about Einstein, I was given a book written by my cousin's husband. Daniel Goode is a musician. The book is a collection of musical reviews written over a number of years. The author has been a progressive musician his entire career. On one occasion, he visited my sister's home and spent much of his time wandering through the woods with an antenna sprouting out of his hat, so he could pick up the sounds of bird calls. It made perfect sense, given the work that he did, but it was definitely an interesting look. On another occasion, I was invited to attend a concert in Manhattan, a work he had composed for orchestra and buildings.
Let that sink in for a moment. There are many buildings in New York City that are constructed of metallic materials. If you bang on them, they make distinctive, musical sounds. Thus, the orchestra played on a street that had been closed off for the performance, which included drummers tapping on the buildings with various drumsticks, as part of a full, orchestral performance. There was a very large crowd gathered to listen, and I couldn't help thinking how strange if felt to be part of this extraordinary musical happening.
Anyway. the book of musical reviews really opened my eyes to an entire realm of music that had gone largely unnoticed by me for most of my life. I had heard of people like John Cage and Philip Glass of course, who had invented their own forms of music, perhaps Minimalism, perhaps something else. But I found reading about the intricacies of how such music was conceived and constructed to be fascinating, not unlike reading about Einstein's formulas. There were vast realms in both instances that I had never before contemplated.
It goes to prove that it can be enlightening to read about things one knows nothing about. The body and mind absorb what they can in some sort of strange internal manner, almost as a process of osmosis that stimulates thinking and carries one off into unexpected realms. I think this sort of stretching of the mind is what often leads to the most original creative thinking. I've always thought of music and mathematics as being related in some manner. I've know many individuals who excelled in both. Einstein, by the way, was a talented violinist.
As I've said, I'm no scientist, but I've always been interested in the sciences: biology, physics, astronomy, archaeology, geology and so forth. And in reading books and science journals about these disciplines, I've managed to absorb a lot of what I've read, even in areas I've never formally studied. And I've used many of these concepts in writing my own books.
Serendipity plays a large role in creative thinking. Reading the right book at the right time, or listening to the never before heard tones of music performed on buildings, can lead to some of the most interesting revelations.
By the way, Philip Glass composed a "portrait" trilogy, one of which was titled, "Einstein on the Beach" (1976). The other two portraits are "Satyagraha" about Gandhi and "Akhnaten" about the Egyptian ruler. The settings of the pieces, as Daniel's career vividly illustrates, can be all important. The "Akhnaten" staging involves a 12-person troupe of jugglers in spandex catsuits.
Mr. Glass, now 82, has never liked the term "Minimalism," to which he is inevitably connected. In a recent interview with The New York Times, he was asked about his legacy, and whether his music will endure. He replied, "I won't be around for all that. It doesn't matter."