Monday, October 31, 2011

Full creative leap

Walter Isaacson wrote the biggest selling Einstein biography, and how now hit the jackpot again with a well-timed biography of Steve Jobs. He plugs both in a new NY Times op-ed:
Mr. Jobs’s intuition was based not on conventional learning but on experiential wisdom. He also had a lot of imagination and knew how to apply it. As Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

Einstein is, of course, the true exemplar of genius. He had contemporaries who could probably match him in pure intellectual firepower when it came to mathematical and analytic processing. Henri PoincarĂ©, for example, first came up with some of the components of special relativity, and David Hilbert was able to grind out equations for general relativity around the same time Einstein did. But neither had the imaginative genius to make the full creative leap at the core of their theories, namely that there is no such thing as absolute time and that gravity is a warping of the fabric of space-time. (O.K., it’s not that simple, but that’s why he was Einstein and we’re not.)
No, that is crazy. Poincare wrote a popular 1902 book that said, "There is no absolute time." Einstein denied reading it, but even all the Einstein scholars agree that he read the 1904 German translation and was inspired by it, well before writing his first relativity paper in 1905.

I am not sure who discovered that gravity is a warping of space-time, but I think that it was Marcel Grossmann in 1913.

The Einstein idolizers like Isaacson are forced to admit that others had all of the relativity formulas before Einstein, and that some of them were smarter than Einstein by any objective measure. So it is difficult to explain why Einstein is credited so much. Isaacson's explanation is typical by saying that they did not make the "full creative leap", whatever that means.
Both Einstein and Mr. Jobs were very visual thinkers. The road to relativity began when the teenage Einstein kept trying to picture what it would be like to ride alongside a light beam. Mr. Jobs spent time almost every afternoon walking around the studio of his brilliant design chief Jony Ive and fingering foam models of the products they were developing.
The biggest and craziest of all the Einstein myths is that he created relativity out of pure thought, without paying any attention to experiment. Isaacson and others say that he just sat around daydreaming about light beams, and proposed it all by himself based on how he thought that the universe ought to be.

It is true that Einstein did not pay much attention to experiments in 1905, but that is only because he was just writing an exposition of the Lorentz-Poincare theory. This is all detailed in my book. This fact is at the core of why Einstein continues to have a bad influence on physics. Theorists are trying to be the new Einstein by dreaming up untestable hypotheses, and hoping for a Paradigm shift.
Mr. Jobs tossed out a few intuitive guesses but showed no interest in grappling with the problem rigorously. I thought about how Bill Gates would have gone click-click-click and logically nailed the answer in 15 seconds, and also how Mr. Gates devoured science books as a vacation pleasure. But then something else occurred to me: Mr. Gates never made the iPod. Instead, he made the Zune. ...

Mr. Jobs’s genius wasn’t, as even his fanboys admit, in the same quantum orbit as Einstein’s. So it’s probably best to ratchet the rhetoric down a notch and call it ingenuity. Bill Gates is super-smart, but Steve Jobs was super-ingenious. The primary distinction, I think, is the ability to apply creativity and aesthetic sensibilities to a challenge.
So what is this supposed to mean? That because Gates made the Zune, he failed to make the full creative leap of an iPod? I wonder if Isaacson has used either one.

The Zune hit the market about 5 years after the iPod. The iPod dominates that market primarily because of the iTunes store and aftermarket accessories. The iPod itself is not any better than the Zune. I personally like other mp3 players much better than the iPod.

This Jobs idol worship is getting tiresome. Dennis Ritchie and John McCarthy also died recently, and they were much more important to today's computers than Jobs.

Update: Bill Gates was asked about the biography:
The Microsoft founder was told by ABC that Jobs "basically said that you were 'unimaginative, had never invented anything and shamelessly ripped off other people's ideas.' That's pretty tough stuff. What's your reaction to that?"
That is funny to hear from Jobs. Here is a video of him saying that his motto is "Good artists copy, great artists steal". Einstein is quoted as saying, "The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources." I doubt that he said it, but even the Einstein historians have to admit that much of the credit for his creativity is based on him having hidden his sources.

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