I spent 10 years of my childhood three doors down from where Einstein lived in Princeton, New Jersey. There were often people outside Einstein’s house taking pictures, video crews, and once a peculiar man who asked me if I had any weed so he could smoke a joint outside Einstein’s house. The house is privately owned and every year for halloween the owner puts on a big white Einstein wig and mustache and hands out large bars of chocolate.
Despite living so close to Einstein’s old house, I haven’t known much about who he was. And, for most of my life I have been estranged from physics as a whole. My dyslexic brain could not connect with my high school physics teacher’s teaching style. A few months ago I began reading Einstein’s biography by Walter Isaacson, which has set me on a journey and return to physics.
Einstein was famous for his thought experiments. He would think about everyday observations for hours such as what it would be like to fly next to a beam of light. Isaacson says of Einstein that his “success came from questioning conventional wisdom, challenging authority, and marveling at mysteries that struck others as mundane.”At the time of reading this, my cherished friend Sandy came to visit. Sandy, someone I always think of as “marveling at mysteries” of everyday life, gave me his copy of the book The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments. Parenthetically, it should be noted that it is my hunch Sandy did not intend to give me this book but listened to me speak of my nascent return to the joys of science and alas, his generosity – even from his few possessions – is unhesitating.
In the book, New York Times Science Times writer George Johnson shares about creative and beautiful experiments that have changed the world. From Isaac Newton learning about light by putting a stick in his eye to Pavlov gently testing salivation patterns on droves of canine research participants. The book – especially as a gift from a treasured friend – has continued to inspire me in my return to physics and science as a whole.
At Payap University, in my ominously-titled general education course “The Path to Wisdom,” I shared this Tedx Teen talk with my students:
In it, Jacob Barnett describes his journey with autism and his interest in physics. He’s an inspiring young man and I appreciated two things the most about his talk. Firstly, he shares that sometimes we need to let go of everything we “know” and allow our brains to observe, create, and think apart from the structures and conventions of society. He references Newton who discovered much of classical physics during the plague when he was away from writing papers or going to lectures in the academe. Secondly – and this point connects more with me personally – I appreciated his bravery and candor as someone with significant learning differences. He has come up with proofs of complex theories of physics at a young age. Where most of us in high school memorize prepackaged bundles of physics tidbits, Barnett (as a preteen) went further and delved deeply into the theories of physics.
A key question this brings up for me is this: what does it really mean to learn something? Is it enough to identify the name of something and be able to regurgitate disconnected pieces of information we’ve been told by others? Richard Fehnman, another physicist, articulates this idea clearly in this short video where he talks about the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.
Einstein, physics, little Jacob Barnett, and Fehnman are helping me to further internalize this important idea: gathering deep meaning from observation and experience, being curious about things that interest us, embracing the beauty and complexity of life, getting away from tests/lectures to just think – all these things are so crucial to what it means to learn. As an educator, I think it’s important to think about how my courses, inside and outside the classroom help guide my students to discover and deeply learn in ways that respect and utilize each person’s unique contributions.
I’m still on the journey learning more about physics. The well-written, although hardly dyslexic-friendly, book The Theoretical Minimum by Stanford’s Leonard Susskind has helped. What I’ve learned so far, though, has very little to do with the theories of physics and more to do with our brains: discovery is a marvelously joyful endeavor.