Here’s a story Albert Einstein was fond of telling:
“I was at a tea in Princeton. The hostess asked me to explain relativity theory in a few words”.
So I said, “I once had a friend who was blind from birth and one day we went for a hike in the country. It was hot so after a couple of hours we sat down to rest”.
“How thirsty am I” I remarked to my friend, “I wish I had a cool glass of milk”.
“What is milk?” my friend inquired.
“Milk? Milk is a white fluid”.
“I know what fluid is” my friend responded but what is “white?”
“White is the color of the swan’s feathers”
“I know what feathers are but what is a swan?”
“A swan is a large bird with a crooked neck”
“I can understand that” my blind friend replied, “Except for one thing. What is crooked?”
“Here” I said seizing his arm and stretching it out. “Now your arm is straight”. Then I folded it against his chest “And now your arm is crooked”.
“Ah, now I know what milk is.”
This is a story not of the foolishness of a blind man but rather, the gulf that separates individual cosmologies from each other and the essential uselessness of attempting to explain one of them with the tools available to the other. Einstein was capable of recognizing that and that is what I like about him the most. He was not the world’s greatest mind nor was he the world’s greatest scientist – those assertions are highly debatable except to those to whom Einstein is the equivalent of Jesus. Well marketed ideas mind you but like all marketing, to be taken with very large mountains of salt. No, what I like about him is the fact that he played the violin and considered that a greater achievement than his work in theoretical physics.
Here then is another “tea-party story” in similar vein although in this, instead of two disparate entities talking irreconcilable languages, this one is about a common language and its importance to everyone. It is a personal testimony of journalist Jerome Weidman. There are many versions of this story but this is the one I like best:
“When I was a very young man, just beginning to make my way I was invited to a talk by a great scientist at one of the more upmarket addresses in the Princeton area. The ride was difficult, it was raining, and I ran in breathless and very late. The hostess, slightly harried, says that the talk is over but they had retired to the drawing room so could I please fix myself a drink and get my late-ass in there without delay?”
It was an enormous room and the other guests were coming in in twos and threes and my eyes beheld two unnerving sights: Servants were arranging small gilt chairs in long, neat rows; and up front, leaning against the wall, were musical instruments.
Apparently I was in for an evening of chamber music.
He scowled “You can go through life knowing nothing of mathematics or physics or science. They are not all that important to life or enjoyment. However, you cannot possibly go through life without music so, tell me if there is any kind of music you like?”