Sunday, August 16, 2009

Einstein's Cloakroom Ticket

Robert Frost believed that a creative work must be in some sense be a revelation to be really valued -- it must be a surprising and unexpected discovery “as much for the poet as for the reader.” But for this revelation to come there must be the “greatest freedom of the material” to move through it and establish relations “regardless of time and space, previous relation, and everything but affinity.”

The power of metaphor and analogy is widely recognized among creative people, although this power is probably more readily acknowledged among poets and writers than among scientists. Yet when we look deeply, we might find more pervasive evidence of this power than might be expected. In very different spheres of science and art, the fundamentals of the creative process may be strikingly similar, at least for certain kinds of people. Antonina Vallentin, who knew Einstein and his second wife quite well, provides an illuminating story about his use of analogies:

“At one time Einstein tried to describe the processes of scientific work and in doing so he exposed the workshop of his mind. Starting with primary concepts directly linked to sense experiences and with theorems which are interdependent, the scientist tries to discover the logical unity in the image of the universe. He goes beyond what Einstein calls the ‘secondary layer’ to arrive at a system of the greatest conceivable unity. He considered it an error to designate these superimposed layers of thought as ‘degrees of abstraction.’ ‘I do not consider it right to conceal the logical independence of a fundamental concept from the sense experiment.’ And he adds, in that picturesque language which he frequently uses: ‘The connection is not comparable to that of soup to beef, but more to that of the cloakroom ticket to the overcoat.’”

It seems that we might be getting rather more in this passage than we might have expected. The analogies are so unexpected and seemly out of context that we are startled and somewhat thrown off track. However, it seems clear that Einstein was not providing these far-fetched analogies for effect, but rather because they came readily to his own mind in just this form. It is as if there existed in his mind an array of generic relationships (represented by concrete objects) to be selected from -- the fitness of the general relationship being far more important than the apparent strangeness of the comparison.

On closer examination these analogies may not be as strange as they might appear at first. In the first instance, we might presume that what Einstein is referring to is that when soup is made from beef it retains the essence of the beef flavor even after the meat itself has been removed. In the second instance he gives a similar but different form of the relationship: a cloakroom ticket is a representation of the ownership of the overcoat and can be used to obtain the actual overcoat when needed. The first analogy (the beef) is sufficiently similar to what is wanted to be worth mentioning, but is not really quite right. However, the second analogy (the ticket) fits and is seen as more appropriate. Thus, the relationship is almost mathematical in the clarity of its form: “the logical independence of a fundamental concept” is to “sense experiment” as the “cloakroom ticket” is to the “overcoat.”

Is all of this just playing games with words? Why does he not just say what he means, we might ask. Well, we might well consider that we are seeing, not a flourish or embellishment of his thought, but a close representation of what is actually going on in his mind -- that the relationships being considered are, in fact, made up, possibly, of the combinations of two sets of very concrete images in his own mind. That is, it is possible that he is actually revealing the terms that he is thinking in, not images representing words as a kind of additional layer, but just words used to describe the images that are actually being employed -- concrete images which are used to represent certain abstract ideas -- and the ways they are categorized, sorted and stored.

When Einstein is quoted as saying he thought in images, we may well have wondered what exactly were the specific images that he used in various cases. It may be regarded as probable, in some cases, that he was thinking in terms of the trains or elevators or light beams that he frequently refers to in his writing -- the rather obvious representations of physical things that were, in turn, representations of the concepts in his thought experiments. But other times, as in the above example, we may ask whether he may have been thinking in terms of his own private notation of concrete images -- one like any private notation of images that might grow up through experience and continuous use. Even in the most technical and basic of scientific debates, the most heated and enduring controversies may well rest primarily on the hidden power of a metaphor or an analogy.

Sources: Robert Frost, “The Figure A Poem Makes” in Complete Poems, 1951 (1967), p. 20, and Antonina Vallentin, The Drama of Albert Einstein, 1954, p. 54.