Thursday, May 06, 2010

Limited knowledge, Boundless imagination

I am enough of the artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.
Einstein said these now famous words at his Berlin home in the course of an interview with George Sylvester Viereck that was published in The Saturday Evening Post of October 26, 1929. (There's a full copy of the original article here). Here's the quote in its original context:

[Viereck:] "If we owe so little to the experience of others, how do you account for sudden leaps forward in the sphere of science? Do you ascribe your own discoveries to intuition or inspiration?"

[Einstein:] "I believe in intuitions and inspirations. I sometimes feel that I am right. I do not know that I am. When two expeditions of scientists, financed by the Royal Academy, went forth to test my theory of relativity, I was convinced that their conclusions would tally with my hypothesis. I was not surprised when the eclipse of May 29, 1919, confirmed my intuitions. I would have been surprised if I had been wrong."

[Viereck:] "Then you trust more to your imagination than to your knowledge?"

[Einstein:] "I am enough of the artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world."
The whole interview is full of similar insightful glimpses into the mind of Einstein. This, for instance, on what motivates him:

Einstein's struggles with fate have left no bitterness on his tongue. Every line of his face expresses kindliness. It also bespeaks indomitable pride. Some friends and admirers learned that he had decided to build a summer house with his hard-earned savings. They offered him a princely gift of land. But Einstein shook his head. "No," he said; "I could accept a gift from a community. I cannot accept such a gift from an individual. Every gift we accept is a tie. Sometimes," he added with Talmudic wisdom, " one pays most for the thing one gets for nothing."

Although the most-talked-about scientist of the world, Einstein absolutely refuses to capitalize his reputation. He laughed when he was asked to indorse an American cigarette. The money offered for his name would have paid the expense of his summer house. Knowing that fame has set him apart from other men, he feels that he must preserve at all cost the integrity of his soul. He escapes the interviewer by every possible device. His shyness dictates and his wife abets his seclusion. Unable to check the avalanche of offers and requests which overwhelm him, he leaves most letters, even from celebrities, unanswered. But he never ignores even the smallest note from a friend. He turned down princely offers to exploit his theories and his life in a book for popular consumption. "I refuse," he said again and again, " to make money out of my science. My laurel is not for sale like so many bales of cotton."


"I am happy because I want nothing from anyone. I do not care for money. Decorations, titles or distinctions mean nothing to me. I do not crave praise. The only thing that gives me pleasure, apart from my work, my violin and my sailboat, is the appreciation of my fellow workers."
Reminds of me a contemporary man of genius who has consistently turned down prizes, fame and money, explaining in relation to one such prize: "It [is] completely irrelevant for me. Everybody [understands] that if the proof is correct then no other recognition is needed.”

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