Einstein among the daffodils

On this second-to-last day of April 2020, I stumbled upon a 99-year-old poem that mentions April, St. Francis of Assisi, and Albert Einstein. It is “St. Francis Einstein of the Daffodils” by William Carlos Williams, which he wrote after Einstein’s first visit to the United States in 1921. Then as now, Einstein was the world’s most famous physicist. I am cheered by the poem, and so I commend it to you.

I learned of the poem in the book “Einstein in Berlin,” which is a biography that focuses on the years 1914-1933. These were the years when Einstein had returned to his native Germany from Switzerland and before he fled to the United States to escape the advance of Nazism.

Unusually this winter and spring, I continued to read non-work-related books after Kim and I returned from one week’s vacation in Mexico in mid-February. After finishing a novel last week, I scoured the bookshelves for some of the many books we own that I haven’t yet read, and this 2003 biography of Einstein leapt off the shelf and into my lap.

I am enjoying how the book combines science history, Einstein’s family melodramas, a social history of World War I, the story of the German Revolution of 1918-1923, and the wild cultural experimentation found in Berlin before Hitler’s Nazi Party came to power in 1933.

I am upset about many things in the current moment — revelations of serious weaknesses in society and in government; the economic and spiritual pain caused by the pandemic quarantine, which is much greater for many people than it is for me; and the unknowns that we face now and in the near-term. To cope with these upset feelings, I am relying on several practices: meditation, bike-riding, and reading. When I feel stuck, I often retreat to my current book, and it seems to help.

In his poem, William Carlos Williams gives the impression that he has been cheered by the persona and promise of Albert Einstein with his revolutionary and largely-incomprehensible theories on the nature of matter, energy, space, and time. I probably understand Einstein as little as Williams, but like him, I am enthralled by the history of human thought and of scientists like Einstein who help us understand reality in new ways.

And so on this beautiful spring day, I relate to Williams’ poem, which ends with these lines:

“It is Einstein
out of complicated mathematics
among the daffodils —
spring winds blowing
four ways, hot and cold,
shaking the flowers!”

I hope you are enjoying the spring, and that dreams of revolutions in physics, medicine, and the culture can offer us hope in strange and unknown times.

Ian

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