E=mc²: A Biography of the World’s Most Famous Equation: Read on May 30, 2016

What is the point of art? What purpose does it really serve? Can it build a bridge, feed the hungry, or put a telescope into orbit? As someone who, sadly, lacks any real STEM ability (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths) I’ve always felt a little insecure about my passion for art, specifically literature. Aren’t I just wasting my time in imaginary worlds, dealing with problems only a person with a lot of free time, abundant food, and stable employment can feel free to worry about?

I’ve read many apologists on this subject, but nobody has offered me a satisfactory resolution between the world of STEM and the world of art. And when I look around at the state of the world – climate change, hunger, economic collapse – I sometimes feel my passion, my love of art, is an evolutionary dead-end, destined to secure me a job in retail for the rest of my life.

However, I’ve never honestly believed what I love is useless, but that I’ve only ever lacked the ability to span the distance between what people used to believe were the two sides of the brain: the creative and the logical.

In this book we are shown how Einstein bridged an even wider gulf: the relationship between matter and energy. It had never occurred to anyone that matter and energy were even related, that energy, and vast amounts of it, could be hidden deep within all the matter around us. Yet his genius was his ability to see relationships between two things nobody had bothered to put together previously. His genius too was in his ability to think about very complicated forces, in this case light, in a way that allowed him to see how strange the universe was, but also how much of the universe really worked.

The book then goes into great historical detail about all the people who came before Einstein whom had contributed to the main elements of his famous E=MC2 formula. We get a very diverse cast of characters, and not all of them men, and later, not all of them white, either. We see how the very fundamental workings of the universe allow everyone in it to contribute to discovering its secrets.

What I’ve read in criticism to this book is that the author, David Bodanis, is not very fair to some of the historical figures who played a part in this story. Some people are made out to be far more nefarious than they really were, but while this is unfortunate, and also a great opportunity for a reader to learn more on their own, my interest in this book has only a little to do with the science or the biographies of the people.

My interest lay in thinking about how people think, specifically what was it that allowed all these brilliant minds to be able to make leaps of logic that would advance our species understanding of the universe. Why are some people, such as Einstein, able to look at light and imagine what would happen if we were to hop a ride on a photon, whereas the rest of us would never even think to even think about light? Why would another person question if a bar of iron weighs differently once it has begun to rust? What is it that separates those people from people like you and me.

But when we think about art, aren’t we doing similar work? When we read, say The Wind and the Willows and we understand it to be not a story about cute animals, but rather about what it means to be a child, aren’t we making a similar, if smaller, leap of thinking? Can there be something in the way we think about art that trains us to be not only more critical, but also more aware of possibilities?

In this book Bodanis shows how if a person is raised to believe the Bible is the only and literal truth, but then when they go to school are then taught that science is the real truth, that some students will then learn to be skeptical of everything going forward? That having been burned once (and I’m not making a judgment on religion here, I’m only showing an extreme example), that the person will be more likely to not accept anything just on faith or authority, but to find out for themselves.

But how do you do that? Are some just born with the gift of better thinking? Are most of us then doomed to always take everything at face value and never consider how, for example sound works, or what happens when you ride on a sun beam?

My proposition then is simply that art is, in a way, the training we give ourselves to improve our thinking. That in order to be able to build a clever bridge, or solve an issue of feeding people in a desert, or putting a telescope into orbit, we have to be able to think differently than the next person.

STEM is great at teaching us that, say, 2 and 2 is 4, but just knowing that fact does not do you much good. Yet someone who is willing to think just a little differently will see that while 2 and 2 is 4, that 4 and 4 does not equal 8, but rather 16.

I believe that through art, all art including the art dating back to the very darkest caves in neolithic France, has been a way for people to work out the process of thinking about practical issues in ways that at first might seem to serve no real practical purpose, but that are really doing the work of training our minds to think better.

And I further believe that through studying art we actually improve the quality of practical fields. Instead of making incremental improvements to some device – say a battery that lasts 1 hour longer for our tablets – that perhaps a more well trained thought process could do away with batteries altogether in favor of a radically new technology?

Now I don’t want to get too pie-in-the-sky here, but I do believe that what makes a person a genius is not necessarily that they were just born that way, but that they just knew how to think better. They weren’t content to just know that 2 and 2 is 4, but that they wanted to know what does that really mean? What relationship is there between that simple equation to, say, the exponential increase of a nuclear chain reaction?

To just know facts does not do us any good, but to know how to use those facts is useful, and learning how to think about the facts we know in unique ways can be learned through studying art. A great novel or painting is like a gym in which we can work-out our critical thinking skills which can then be applied to other fields.

However, I don’t want to carry that analogy too far. Art is not just a means to a more practical end. Art does serve an aesthetic purpose and should not be looked at as just a tool that can be swept aside when it no longer serves a practical purpose. We are emotional beings too as well as being logical creatures and so having an outlet for our emotional selves is vital. Art also informs us on matters that are difficult to deal with, such as what Einstein thought about when he understood his great insight, E=MC2, lead to nuclear weapons. Art serves to explore the emotional, moral, and ethical aspects of our lives as much as it can help us think uniquely about practical concerns.

And so this book which explores what E=MC2 means, what led up to it, and where it led to, served for me as a book which helped me think more deeply about the relationship between Art and Science just as Einstein (well, not just as he did, but to a much smaller degree) thought about the relationship between Energy and Matter.