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A Genius Finds Inspiration in the Music of Another

31 January 2006

Last year, the 100th anniversary of E=mc2 inspired an outburst of symposiums, concerts, essays and merchandise featuring Albert Einstein. This year, the same treatment is being given to another genius, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, born on Jan. 27, 250 years ago.

There is more to the dovetailing of these anniversaries than one might think.
Einstein once said that while Beethoven created his music, Mozart’s ‘‘was so pure that it seemed to have been ever-present in the universe, waiting to be discovered by the master.” Einstein believed much the same of physics, that beyond observations and theory lay the music of the spheres – which, he wrote, revealed a ‘‘pre-established harmony” exhibiting stunning symmetries. The laws of nature, such as those of relativity theory, were waiting to be plucked out of the cosmos by someone with a sympathetic ear. …

From 1902 to 1909, Einstein was working six days a week at a Swiss patent office and doing physics research – his ‘‘mischief” – in his spare time. But he was also nourished by music, particularly Mozart. It was at the core of his creative life.

And just as Mozart’s antics shocked his contemporaries, Einstein pursued a notably Bohemian life in his youth. His studied indifference to dress and mane of dark hair, along with his love of music and philosophy, made him seem more poet than scientist. …

In his struggles with extremely complicated mathematics that led to the general theory of relativity of 1915, Einstein often turned for inspiration to the simple beauty of Mozart’s music.

‘‘Whenever he felt that he had come to the end of the road or into a difficult situation in his work, he would take refuge in music,” recalled his older son, Hans Albert. ‘‘That would usually resolve all his difficulties.”

In the end, Einstein felt that in his own field he had, like Mozart, succeeded in unravelling the complexity of the universe.

Scientists often describe general relativity as the most beautiful theory ever formulated. Einstein himself always emphasized the theory’s beauty. ‘‘Hardly anyone who has truly understood it will be able to escape the charm of this theory,” he once said.

The theory is essentially one man’s view of how the universe ought to be. And amazingly, the universe turned out to be pretty much as Einstein imagined.

Arthur I Miller, UCL Emeritus Professor of the History & Philosophy of Science, ‘The New York Times’, 31 January 2006