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29 August 2005updated 27 Sep 2015 3:00am

Dancing to his tune

Ariel Dorfman grew up believing Einstein was famous for music, not physics. A mistake? Not quite, he

By Ariel Dorfman

As a child, I was sure that Albert Einstein was the most famous violinist in the world. The confusion stemmed from a photo of the great man that adorned the New York Times in the late 1940s – let’s say 1948, to conveniently and coincidentally make me six years old, the very age when Einstein himself, in 1885, first started his violin lessons. So . . . that morning of 1948, my father opened the paper in our home in Queens, New York, and pointed to the man with the bushy moustache and wild hair and gentle laughing eyes. “The greatest man of our time,” my father informed me solemnly. “And I met him several times, when I was at Princeton in 1944. He even invited me to his house, served me tea. And how he played the violin!”

And that was enough – the awe with which my father pronounced those words “he played the violin” – for me to believe for many years that the most eminent physicist in history was renowned primarily for his ability to coax notes out of a musical instrument.

In time, of course, I came to realise the error of my ways. He began to appear on my horizon when my adolescent brain staggered to understand that mass and energy can be manifestations of the same phenomenon; and then loomed even larger as my adult brain began to pen stories where the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion. And appeared in all his metaphorical glory when, growing older in a globe defined by what Einstein had discovered, a century torn asunder by the forces that this wonderful man had unleashed, I found my life splintered as if it were an atom. And through it all, I also came to admire Einstein as a man of peace and wisdom and, yes, a prankster – with that illustrious tongue of his sticking out at us from his most notorious photograph and demanding that we not take him all that seriously.

So many images, so much influence, and ever less the original impression of Einstein as a musician.

And, yet, now that we are well into a new century, now that we celebrate 100 years of that moment when the young Einstein reached his epiphany of E = mc^2 which still haunts us, I have started to wonder if my first intuition about the great Albert was not correct after all. I wonder if those early violin lessons in 1885 – for a boy who had not yet really started to enunciate words, who was a tardy speaker of German – were not the sweet fire where his mind was forged and tempered. If it was not in the mass of that wooden musical instrument filled with a baffling energy that resonated inside every electron of his being, if it was not there where and when and how he first conjured up the laws of cosmology. I wonder if the design of the universe was not contained in the emotion he wrested from those strings. And if it was not a heart tuned by Mozart that gave birth to his certainty that the quantum leap of the imagination is always more important than the dreary accumulation of knowledge. Can it not be – my final wonderment – that Einstein’s theory of relativity owes more to an aesthetic revelation than to his overwhelming mathematical intelligence?

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Because this he did know, really knew – and said it: “We all dance to a mysterious tune, intoned in the distance by an invisible piper.” And was exceptional because he understood this mystery, that distance, this invisibility, that piper, in a deeper and more humane way than most of those who, full of uncertainty and bewilderment, have danced ever since in the still luminous shadow of his music and his mind.

Here’s to you, Uncle Albert – the greatest violinist in the world.

copyright Ariel Dorfman, 2005

Ariel Dorfman’s latest books are a collection of essays, Other Septembers, Many Americas (Pluto Press), and The Burning City (Random House), a novel written with his youngest son, Joaquin

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