Einstein’s Violin: The Hidden Connections between Scientific Breakthroughs and Art

Garreth Dottin
Nov 17, 2016 · 8 min read

“What are you doing, you frozen whale, you smoked, dried and canned piece of soul? But why have you not sent me your dissertation? Don’t you know that I would be one among 1 1/2 fellow who would read it through with interest and pleasure, you wretch? In exchange, I promise you four papers.”

The four papers Einstein casually mentioned to a close friend would eventually become much more than an afterthought in a forgotten letter. Working six days a week at a patent office and living a bohemian lifestyle, few would have imagined the coming effect of those papers. Einstein — with his disheveled hair, crumbling apartment, and penchant for the violin — resembled much more an artist than any scientist.

Known as the annus mirabilis papers, the four papers would redefine a century and the entire field of physics. A hundred years later, scientists, philosophers, and everyone in between have continued to study the annus mirabilis papers and the rest of Einstein’s work to better understand his genius.

Yet few have looked at Einstein’s hobbies or artistry with the violin to better understand the man. Some see Einstein’s mastery of the violin and assume it to be another item on a long checklist of an accomplished career. But this artist-polymath type seems to point to something far more carnal and central to the process of scientific breakthroughs.

If Einstein were an anomaly, the rare scientist who was an artist-polymath, it would be fair to chalk it up to chance. But many of the greatest scientists — Copernicus, Galileo, Maxwell, and Feynman, to name a few — were all artist-polymaths. They all were prolific scientists who also engaged their artistic sides.

By creating a data engine that uses Bag of Words and a POS Tagger, we can see the overlap between scientists and artistic ability that was perhaps impossible to detect before. The Bag of Words and POS Tagger allows us to analyze thousands of texts by searching for keywords and parts of speech. Patterns start to emerge when analyzing texts written by five hundred of the most acclaimed scientists in history.

There were chemists who were part-time painters and Victorian poets who also happened to be world-renowned physicists. What were the eras in history with the most overlap? Who were the standout polymaths? And, perhaps most importantly, why did their artistic sides play such a trans-formative role in their breakthroughs?

In any data set, frequency is usually the most apparent at first. For obvious reasons, it’s the most glaring part regardless of its relevancy. In the early days of modern science, there seemed to be a much higher amount of overlap than today. Of the nearly 61 scientists identified as artist-polymaths, 51% of them came from the 16th and 17th centuries.

Combing through the data, we can see that the early scientists were often illustrators, poets, and musicians. This was often out of necessity because scientists needed to have a variety of skills that we take for granted today.

A serious astronomer needed to be able to sketch his observations, and a cartographer needed to be able to bring a town to life with maps just as a painter would with a portrait. Especially for astronomers, the position was equal parts math and illustrative art.

But not all artist-polymaths were welcomed. This was very apparent with the infamous Copernicus who, during his lifetime, was a published poet and astronomer. Later regarded as the father of the Scientific Revolution, his seminal piece, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, helped overturn the idea that Earth was the center of the universe.

At the time of the book’s release, Copernicus was almost 70 years old and morbidly ill. To protest the publication, Catholic knights hired jesters to mock the astronomer. The jesters performed in the town square, acting like the “crazy priest” Copernicus who preached the idea that Earth was actually moving around the sun at thousands of miles per hour.

According to the story, Copernicus was too sick to attend the publication’s release. In a scene fit for theater, Copernicus, in his last words, described his book as “not scientific fact but a playful fancy.” He would die later that day with a penned poem in his pocket.

Copernicus is the prototypical artist-polymath. He was a contrarian outside the normal lines of society who blended his love of art with his scientific endeavors. Like Einstein, Copernicus wasn’t the most astute mathematician, but his ability to conceptualize ideas separated him from the pack.

Einstein wasn’t the only scientist ridiculed by his peers.

Art seems to have a peculiar way of connecting disparate parts of the brain that typically don’t work in correspondence. This isn’t just the musing of philosophers in a liberal arts classroom — the topic is quickly becoming an established field of neuroscience.

Coined “neuroaesthetics,” the study of how neuroscience and art intersect is a popular topic among academics. One study completed with elementary students showed some of the early connections formed in the brain. Using eight public schools, researchers created test “art groups” with students who had fallen behind academically. The “art groups” received ongoing music and visual arts training as they progressed through the year.

In just seven months, the art students that were once far behind their peers had caught up in reading and were performing 22% better in math than the other students. In a similar study, students given piano lessons over a short period of time performed over 30% better on temporal reasoning tests. Temporal reasoning is the ability to visualize three- and four-dimensional objects, a key skill for any artist or scientist.

For scientists like Einstein, the ability to visualize complex thought experiments separated him from the ordinary. In Einstein’s case, it would involve visualizing the same thought experiment repeatedly.

Illustrations by Eleanor Doughty

It’s impossible to dissect exactly how Einstein made his breakthrough in 1905. But he often described how, from the age of sixteen, he would visualize a man riding a bicycle chasing a light beam.

For almost ten years, Einstein thought about the same thought experiment while he worked at the patent office: a man on a bicycle chasing a light beam. As the lowest patent officer, he would frequently review hundreds of applications on the properties of light, electricity, and time. His exposure to these theories allowed him to separate the nonsensical ideas from those worth further investigation.

He would often finish up his work responsibilities early to dive into his “side projects”. Coworkers would later tell stories about how they would catch Einstein stuffing papers into his desk whenever anyone would come into the room.

Einstein frequently visited emission theory, a prevailing theorem. The theory tried to reconcile electromagnetism with the principle of relativity, an idea originally introduced by Galileo. But for emission theory to work, it required light to be able to move at different velocities.

According to Professor John Norton of the University of Pittsburgh, Einstein reasoned that if light could travel at different speeds, an observer might occasionally catch up to the light wave. This is where the bicycle thought experiment likely came in. Einstein realized that light would appear to be frozen to the observer on the bicycle, and that frozen light waves neither happened in nature nor had been proven mathematically. Einstein was left with the breakthrough that light must be a constant.

“I admire the elegance of your method of computation. It must be nice to ride through these fields upon the horse of true mathematics while the like of us have to make our way laboriously on foot.” — Albert Einstein

Admittedly, Einstein was not the strongest mathematician; his gift came in the form of thought experiments. He would visualize how the entire universe could be in harmony, and his theories would later explain ideas such as black holes and other phenomena in the universe.

Although these thought experiments might only be loosely correlated to his musical ability, it’s difficult to ignore the role of music in his prowess. His wife would describe it like this:

“Music helps him when he is thinking about his theories. He goes to his study, comes back, strikes a few chords on the piano, jots something down, returns to his study.”

Surprisingly, musicians weren’t the overwhelming favorite among artist-polymaths. It’s highly possible that many scientists were musicians but didn’t publish their work. Poets and painters were the most represented.

This is likely because the end of the Renaissance coincided with the beginning of the Scientific Revolution. Humanist education was emphasized during this period, and many scientists were trained from a young age in the arts of drawing and poetry.

Perhaps most surprising about the data set was the variety. Poets, architects, and even globe-makers all appeared in the data. The variety was glaring and likely even underrepresented. The machine learning engine learned by analyzing texts of artists from different periods, but it likely missed obscure artistic fields.

It would seem that today, with the development of smaller niche sub-cultures, there would be an opportunity for a resurgence, a diversity of artistic polymaths. There’s a reason that the Juilliard School of Music is a primary recruiting ground for medical schools like Columbia and NYU. Some companies and universities know that it takes a highly creative mind to accomplish extraordinary technical feats.

But a hundred years after Einstein’s Miracle Year, most companies focus on highly specialized skill sets over artistic or even well-rounded candidates. LinkedIn doesn’t exactly have extensive job openings for engineers with artistic backgrounds. The world is waiting for the next Copernicus with his poetry, Feynman with his bongos, or Einstein with his violin.

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