Einstein and the Waterlily

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. His eyes are closed.’

Albert Einstein in Living Philosophies, 1931

I sometimes marvel at the extent to which Albert Einstein is a magnet for quotebots. He came up twice in unrelated contexts for me yesterday, in each case not for anything he said about the subjects of his undoubted expertise, but for some vaguely spiritual bon mot he is credited with.

The first instance was in a TED talk (where else?), which I watched in preparation for a lesson today, a talk given by the improbably named Chip Conley, a San Francisco hotelier who has much to say on quantifying the unquantifiable. The quotation in question was to the effect that what counts often cannot be counted, and vice versa.

The second instance was by way of introduction to an interesting short film about the Santa Cruz waterlily, which can be seen around now in the tropical wetlands house in the Botanic Garden.

All well and good. It is just possible I suppose that the old man might have started to believe his own publicity there towards the end of his life. Clever, exceptionally clever, but in apparently non-transferable field of theoretical physics. I am not sure in general that physicists make good philosophers (no shame in that). But Einstein has become an icon of intellect (a silhouette is sufficient to suggest the idea of outrageous brains), and by transference every word that passed his lips or his pen has taken on the stamp of authority.

Which is as much as to say that I think, like Chip Conley, he talked a lot of forgettable tosh. Not on general relativity, perhaps; on the mysterium, certainly.

That said, the transgender, beetle-kidnapping, two-metre waterlilies really are wonderful. Go and have a look, and stand rapt in awe.