Bram Boroson, Master of Subtle Ways and Straight (bram) wrote,
Bram Boroson, Master of Subtle Ways and Straight

Heroes of Creativity

I'm not sure why, but recently I decided to explore those I considered "heroes" in my life, although the word "heroes" seems maybe too monumental. And to see how I've changed in my life, and what lessons biographies of the famously accomplished might have for me.

I would have to say that for a long time, when I think of how to live a life of creative accomplishment, I think of Beethoven and Einstein. Dead white males, native German speakers. What's struck me recently about these two heroes of mine is (1) that they are BOTH popularly accorded top notch rank, AND ALSO by the cogniscenti. They are not obscure at all. Could I have said, "Well, Einstein is all well and good, but my personal hero is Paul Adrian Maurice Dirac--his work was of fundamental importance not only for quantum mechanics, but he also predicted antimatter, a new class of particles, which had not yet been observed." Perhaps something in the life of Dirac, or say Bohr, might appeal to some more who are familiar with the detailed accomplishments of these physicists. On the other hand, there's NO denying that the popular image of Einstein as the head of this pack is based in reality; only a crank will deny the central importance of what Einstein did.

And item (2) is that both are not only known persistently in the popular imagination (kindly German-accented old man with bushy gray hair and moustache; glowering deaf composer shaking his fist), but that a shorthand for their actual WORK is popular (in fields where very little is nowadays popular). In spite of classical music being dead to the average American, who doesn't recognize the first 4 notes of Beethoven's 5th symphony? (They even have cultural resonance beyond music: weren't they used in WW II as a morse-code symbol of victory?) Sometimes it's unfortunate that something's well known--Beethoven's Fur Elise is a nonentity among his compositions, but a pretty enough tune that it's got some popular recognition. For the 5th symphony however, the people have it right--that first movement is really remarkable, although it's sometimes hard for me to hear it as music and not the famous monument it's become. It's Beethoven at his best, crisply and clearly showing us exactly what he feels. For Einstein, of course, the popular shorthand of his work is "E=mc2". While that's not at the basis of his most revolutionary work (Genereal Relativity), but more like the endpoint of his youthful important work (Special Relativity), it was still important. The flavor of his work's sweeping importance is captured by the relation between energy and mass, and that it has something to do with the speed of light.

Neither Einstein nor Beethoven were people whose work was motivated directly by helping others in need. Some, such as kytty, do hold to this as a prime motivator, some imagine always the bony hands of the needy. With Beethoven, first, one might retort that music was not a frilly luxury, but what kept him alive. He was the son of an abusive alcoholic, never married, and of course what could be worse than having the greatest musical imagination coupled with nearly total deafness! So he needed to write music, it took hold of him. Though I've said social justice wasn't the main motivation of the lives of either of these heroes, it DID play an important role. Beethoven's 3rd symphony, for example, was to celebrate Napoleon, when he was a hero of the French Revolution. When Beethoven heard that Napoleon had declared himself emperor, he tore up the dedication page of the symphony and said, "So, he's just like all the others--he'll declare himself tyrant and trample on the liberties of others!" Then there's the 9th symphony, with the Ode to Joy that goes, "alle Menschen werden Bruder", all men are brothers... Beethoven scorned the aristocratic system, admired democracy.

Einstein was a pacifist in WW I, getting in some trouble for his position. He invented a new refrigerator design after hearing about a family that had died when the cooling gas had escaped overnight.

Perhaps one thing these two heroes of mine have in common is that they are concerned with finding something very BASIC. This is probably oversimplifying a bit. The last movement of Mozart's Jupiter symphony puts together very complex combinations of 4 notes too, also aided by some counter-themes. But with Mozart or Bach, there's nothing like the 4 notes introducing the 5th symphony. Although Beethoven was not as skilled in counterpoint as either of those other giants, his music has an elemental quality, it's not afraid of simplicity (the 55-straight e-naturals of the opening movement of the 7th symphony, for example.)

Maybe I could have found other "heroes" who had this quality too--I'm thinking of Shakespeare, for example. Everyone knows Shakespeare, everyone knows "To be or not to be," but one couldn't say the popular imagination had seized on a mediocre playwrite and play--no, it's because Shakespeare, like Beethoven and Einstein, gets right to the point, that everyone (nearly everyone) recognizes his greatness.

Now, perhaps I could write a book like Godel, Escher, Bach, but Beethoven, Einstein, Shakespeare! Which brings me to a more youthful hero of mine, Douglas Hofstadter. Hofstadter and GEB were very big in CTY. I've been reading entr00pi and evan who are also Hofstadter fans. Well, somehow I lost interest in "popularizer heroes" in college. Carl Sagan and Douglas Hofstadter were not the ones praised to the sky by academia--no they were more kind of sneered at. The physics building had these big posters from the centennary of Einstein's birth in 1979, telling his story.

There was a phase in college when I read a lot of the essays of Bertrand Russell, as well as Einstein's. They're both definitely worth reading. I'm not sure why I don't idolize Russell these days. To write essays like Russell's or Einstein's, to be of such interest one could tell the world one's opinions in detail seemed like fun--of course now I have LiveJournal! Maybe it's that philosophical accomplishments seem more tenuous than physics accomplishments. Maybe the homophilic biographies by Ray Monk of Wittgenstein and Russell came down pretty hard on Russell. For whatever reason, I haven't read or re-read much by Russell lately.

Strangely, I never found Einstein's biography to be intimidating. I actually thought, "Hey, I could do that!" Of course, here I am, at 35 (when he'd finished his major accomplishments) and all I've produced are 15 or so inconclusive journal articles on obscure stars. I was always more intimidated by Feynman. He gave the impression of being into physics, REALLY into physics--although he had outside interests, they were mainly later in life. Einstein gives me the impression of a more general mind, and there are all the stories of him doing well in school only selectively, of his talents being hidden behind a mediocre job ("patent examiner, third class").

Why not Leonardo da Vinci? I don't know. I think I read something on him in 6th grade, though Thomas Henry Huxley was more my hero then. But sometimes I do wonder whether I should pattern myself more after a Renaiscance Man than someone with accomplishments in one field. Sometimes I feel pretty smug about myself, "Hey Bram, you're really creative in a lot of different fields! You can do astrophysics, math, philosophy, stand-up comedy, write music, you're pretty versatile at writing (not so good in the visual arts...)" I do feel I can write well and creatively--of course my chorus here on LiveJournal has selected itself on the basis of liking my writing. My parents are writers, and while it doesn't give me that feeling that I'm getting at something basic that led me into physics, I enjoy writing because when you write you can be creative with a minimum of raw materials.

For da Vinci though his separate interests came together to support his painting. Carving up cadavers helped him understand bones and muscle under the skin and thus become a better painter. He studied light, vision, he studied natural phenomena (fluids) in order to render them better.

Most accomplished creatives don't hoard their resources for one giant masterpiece but generally repeat dozens or hundreds of attempts in the same medium, learning and exploring as they go along. Beethoven had 135 musical publications, Mozart in a much more brief life had what, 551? Understanding how Beethoven wrote his 9th symphony may seem daunting; understanding how the mind that had already written the 5th symphony wrote the 9th symphony, less so.

As for me? Well, I could have gone much further in those 15 or so papers. Sometimes I think I hacked my way through the path of least resistance, or didn't learn about peripheral issues that could have been interesting. Nothing involved was of fundamental importance. But I think I've also learned as a teacher--I've learned the material better, been prodded by student questions, had to think on my feet a bit guiding students through labs. Probably I'm too close to the raw data, too close to computer programs instead of analytic understanding. Instead of trying to understand atomic spectroscopy better, I defer to my expert co-author, or kitchen-sink computer program.

Then there are the repeated livejournal entries on philosophical physics I've posted here. I'd like to think I'm getting better at it, or at least exploring it better in my own mind, by my own criteria. But my criterion is that I eventually say something sensible and falsifiable.

In the end I've got a bunch of creative talents, things that really puzzle me and interest me but relate to nothing that can be solved or demonstrated and day to day astrophysics that answers minor questions with tentative answers that only sometimes require creativity.

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