221b: Edison, Einstein, Pursuit, Gödel, Rest
143 years ago to the day, Thomas Edison patented his design for an incandescent lightbulb. The word incandescent just means something that lights up when it is heated. Most people assume Edison was the first person to ever invent an electric lightbulb. That is not true.
There are three variables at play in a lightbulb:
• Something that glows (a filament) when a current runs through it
• Something to stop the filament from burning out too quickly
• Something to supply power to create the reaction in the filament
Many inventors tried different combinations of each variable. In 1841, an English inventor tried using Carbon as the filament inside a vacuum, which is what Edison eventually settled on. However at the time, the vacuum wasn't strong enough and the carbon burned too quickly. In 1865, the mercury pump was invented, which finally allowed for a proper vacuum to form. Then, in 1880, Edison developed a Carbon filament bulb.
The creation of the lightbulb is attributed to Edison for other reasons than his showmanship, though. One of the biggest, was that he also discovered a way to spread electricity throughout a town, which was obviously needed to make an electric bulb work.
(There's a movie that dramatizes Edison, Tesla, and Westinghouse's relationship and the invention of the bulb called The Current War.)
The life and wisdom of Albert Einstein was the result of his innate curiosity. He had a willingness to ask questions about the strange mysteries in the world and see where finding answers lead him.
That curiosity was rooted in one thing: wonder.
This first time it happened, he was sick in bed as a kid when his father gave him a compass. He was fascinated with how the needle moved and was determined to understand how it worked. This was the spark–a simple act of wondering–that lead to a lifetime of revolutionary ideas. The New York Times, reporting on Einstein’s death, wrote the most beautiful words that describe his approach to life:
Man stands on this diminutive earth, gazes at the myriad of stars and upon billowing ocean and tossing trees–and wonders. What does it all mean? How did it come about? The most thoughtful wonderer who appeared among us in three centuries has passed on in the person of Albert Einstein.
“The most thoughtful wonderer...” I love that phrase.
Annie Dillard tells this story in The Writing Life and it encapsulates so well human feelings towards what we create:
Every year a young photographer gives his photos to an older photographer. The older photographer separates the images into two piles: good and bad. Every year, the same image gets put in the “bad” pile, yet the young photographer keeps bringing it. ”You submit this same landscape every year, and every year I put it on the bad stack. Why do you like it so much?” the old photographer asks.
“Because I had to climb a mountain to get it,” the younger says.
We love what we pursue.
Kurt Gödel, considered along with Aristotle to be one the most significant thinkers in the field of logic, often had trouble not wearing his "logician's hat." In one instance, Jim Holt writes in When Einstein walked with Gödel, while getting his U.S. Citizenship, Einstein had to calm Gödel down after he got agitated with the worker at the court house. The issue at hand was Gödel's insistence that the Constitution had a loophole in it that would allow a dictatorship to come into existence.
"We must be indulgent to the mind, and regularly grant it the leisure that serves as its food and strength."