Today, let's reclaim mystery. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
I was doing a program on
another scientist when I
discovered he was born the same year as Einstein,
1879. On a hunch I went to the dictionary to check
some of the people around them. Niels Bohr was born
just six years after Einstein, and Schrödinger
four years before. Since these people had
redirected human thinking in remarkable ways just
after 1900, I looked further. Picasso was born two
years after Einstein, James Joyce three years
after, Schönberg four years before. The Wright
Brothers were only a decade older.
Now it's perfectly obvious that the great minds at
any date will've been born around the same time.
Nothing interesting there. But I wondered about the
world that'd made this particular set of people.
What did it say to them when they were young? How
did it send them off to wreak such radical change?
I think it was because we'd grown complacent. The
problems of science were yielding, left and right,
to new instruments, new math, and new physical
theory. Only a few nagging problems lingered: the
inexplicably constant velocity of light, and our
failure to predict how the energy of light and heat
varies with wavelength.
The art of the day was Salon Art:
extraordinarily realistic images of
larger-than-life romantic unreality. Like physics,
art had nowhere to go. Nor did the rich, overblown
music of the late Romantics. How were you supposed
to take it further! Transportation had run to the
end of its tether. At a hundred miles an hour,
railroad trains could go no faster, and the
Clipper Ship had topped
out at fourteen knots. It was a world filled with
vast accomplishments. But it was also a world of
technological ceilings, social ceilings, scientific
Just when our revolutionaries were young adults,
beginning to make their marks, Henry Adams wrote
that the great blind spot at the end of the
nineteenth century was our
denial of mystery.
So geniuses born in the 1870s and '80s would have
to find mystery once again. For mystery is
the one thing we cannot do without. Einstein gave
us the mysterious neverland of relativity.
Schrödinger reduced the contradictions of
quantum physics to that single mysterious
hypothesis we call the Schrödinger equation.
Picasso offered a vision of reality just as
disorienting as relativity or quantum uncertainty.
Schönberg declared freedom from the tonal
hierarchies that'd bound music for five hundred
years. James Joyce made mincemeat of prose as we'd
expected it to sound.
But revolutions don't survive in their original
forms. Music and art eventually regained contact
with the people they serve. So did physics. The
point becomes crystal clear in two other Einstein
contemporaries: Lenin was born nine years before,
and Stalin the same year as, Einstein. They made a
muck of social revolution. The reason lay in the
depths of their profound denial of the centrality
of mystery. Without it, their revolution had no way
of getting back to the mysterious reaches of human
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds