Wednesday, October 04, 2006

On the beach

A few days ago, I was walking the promenade along Pacific Beach in San Diego, which surely attracts one of the hippest, tannest, most unconventional crowds of people on Earth. Without tattoos or multiple piercings I felt out of place, but enjoyed the company all the same. Three times I saw folks wearing tees (several-sizes too small, of course) that read "Imagination is more important than knowledge: Einstein."

I know the quotation. But when or where did Einstein say it? It is listed in Alice Calaprice's The Quotable Einstein (1996 edition) as "unattributed." A brief Google turned up more than half-a-million hits for the quote, but not its source. Can a reader help?

In my experience the quote has become a mantra for the New Age, a presumed justification from the frizzy-haired ubergenius for a life of anything-goes hallucination. Drop out and tune in. Which is surely not what Einstein had in mind -- if he said it at all.

Imagination may be more important than knowledge if you want to be an Einstein, but you better have one helluva lot of knowledge to start with. By the time Einstein had his great ideas he had mastered the physics of his time.

Would I rather live in a country ruled by a tut-tutting cabal of tweedy, wine-sipping Princeton professors or an anarchic swarm of grass-fueled, roller-bladed hipsters. Well, neither, actually. Surely, knowledge and imagination are equally necessary for the good life. The great task of child-rearing and education, it always seemed to me, is promoting a synergistic balance of reliable public knowledge and private flights of fancy. It is when the two feed off each other that all great science and art has its beginning.