Editor's Note: La Bloga welcomes Daniel Cano as a Thursday regular writer, alternating with Ernest Hogan's Chicanonautica column. See Daniel's biography after his essay. La Bloga has long admired Cano's work. Here is Michael Sedano's review of Cano's novel, Death and the American Dream. Please leave a comment welcoming Daniel Cano to the ranks of La Bloga's blogueras blogueros.
Thinking about Einstein
I was walking my dogs this morning at the neighborhood park, a lot of trees, especially pines, which make me feel like I’m in the woods instead of L.A.’s suburban westside. I have been listening to a CD, a biography of Einstein. Oh, I’m not a science buff, not by a long shot, but if you tell me an engaging story about science or scientists, I’m ready to listen.
What first threw me was that Einstein was a high school dropout, a bright student, high marks in all subjects, as a kid, but disinterested in the kind of rote education forced upon him in those days, the late 1800s. He was also academically rebellious, arguing with teachers, and often, just sitting in class, bored, or staring out the window, daydreaming, like a lot of Latino(a) high school students I’ve known, including myself.
As he progressed through the academic washing machine, his grades suffered. Because of his unruly academic reputation, he had a hard time getting accepted into any universities. He settled on, what we know today as a Teachers’ or State College, focusing on physics and math but, by no means, excelling in either. When he graduated college, he couldn’t land a teaching job.
His father supported him until Einstein managed to find a job in a patenting office, mind-numbing work, his friends told him, discouraging him from taking the job. He worked there for nine years. Ironically, he liked the work, poring over proposals by would-be inventors. Einstein’s imagination always trumped his rote learning.
Einstein played a mean violin and analyzed Mozart and Bach. He was curious about all the arts and enjoyed hanging out with friends and discussing philosophy, science, and anything intellectually enlightening.
What surprised me was that he didn’t spend every waking moment reading science, though he did start at an early age questioning why nature acts the way it does, simple questions like if a man falls from a building and spills the change in his pocket will the coins rise or fall, and at what speed. His examples were easy to follow, but his abstract analysis of the problem was not, at least for me.
As I listen to his life’s story, I can’t help but think how we writers, like scientists, apply imagination and reason to our work, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. To Einstein, the image of a man falling from a building was a real situation not abstract or theoretical. The same way, he saw his character, we writers, too, see our characters and ask questions of their situations. Would a character really act a certain way in a certain situation? How much change is in his pocket and why is it there, anyway?
We are constantly using Einstein’s methods of induction and deduction. We also must consider a myriad of facts. For example, if I am writing a story, and I say the streetlights brightened the town at sundown, do I know for sure there were streetlights in, let’s say, 1910?
It is curious to me how Einstein approached the most difficult physics dilemma with basic common sense, the same way we approach moral and philosophical problems in our own stories, and in our lives.
Then there was Einstein the person. In addition to his delving into his intellectual and cultural work, the man also had to contend with a world of personal problems and romantic entanglements, marriage to a woman he didn’t love, an unwanted pregnancy, and parents who demanded much of him. Yet through all this, he was a prolific writer. He studied papers and books written by his scientific precursors, referencing those whose ideas supported his own.
He sent his early papers, attempts at a dissertation, to university professors, some who still carried ill-will towards the young man they remembered as a rambunctious learner. Finally, his work began to attract their attention and elicit responses.
A noted professor who understood the merit of Einstein’s propositions and/or questions accepted one of his papers, and awarded the wayward scholar a doctorate.
Now, you can understand my hesitation when I learned that while Einstein wrote his papers, he was never enrolled in a university. His learning method was completely “Kurtzian”, a lifelong independent learner. Yet, in our time, to receive a doctorate, before even attempting a dissertation, students must sit in a classroom for two-to-five years, at an exorbitant cost, I might add. Of course, Einstein was brilliant. That probably had something to do with. Even his independent studies addressed scientific problems that stumped many of the scientific thinkers of his day.
Then something struck me. As I grow older, my sense of learning, of imagining, and creating grows as strong as ever. It doesn’t diminish. It blooms. I remember people always telling me, “Stop daydreaming,” or “Focus, pay attention.” I too looked out the window when the teacher wanted our “undivided attention.”
Einstein pondered “time” not only as a problem in physics, but psychologically and philosophically, as well. Some of his ideas contributed to the construction of clocks and watches. I too ponder time, but for me, it is the realization that once we grow older, time becomes more precious, and how we use it may be one of the most important philosophical problems for creative people. Often, I hear myself say, “Where did the time go?” or “There isn’t enough time in the day.” Then I realize, the problem isn’t time. The problem is “We”, and how we choose to use it.
As for Einstein’s unorthodox education, of course, the rest is history, or, I should say--science. He not only became the famed scientist we all know but also a noted writer, professor, husband, and father. And, yes, he was forgetful, not because of a bad memory, but because of an active imagination, just too much on his mind, like the rest of us.
In anything I read, I am always looking for a message. I can’t help but wonder if there are lessons in Einstein’s story for us as writers, teachers, students, or readers?
I am not too proud to admit that I understood very little about the problems in physics Einstein’s biographer described. I suspect the writer knew many readers would be perplexed. But what the writer explained beautifully was the story, and the way Einstein approached the most complex, scientific problems, in a way that any thoughtful person would. Though he was a genius, he was also accessible.
I think I understand his famous quote a little better now, the one you see on posters and memes: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there will be to know and understand.”
Daniel Cano is the author of three novels Pepe Rios, Shifting Loyalties (Arte Publico Press) and Death and the American Dream (Bilingual Press), which was awarded Best Novel, Historical Fiction by the “12 Annual International Latino Literary Awards.” His writing has appeared in such publications as Fire and Ink: an Anthology of Social Action Writing (The University of Arizona Press), Aztlan in Vietnam (University of California Press), Pieces of the Heart (Chronicle Books), Unnatural Disasters: recent writings from the Golden State (Incommunicado Press), and Bre’ves, a literary journal published in France. In 2006, Longman Press included Daniel Cano’ story “Somewhere Outside Duc Pho” in Latino Boom: an anthology of U.S. Latino Literature, presenting some of the best Latino literature from the past 20 years.”
Cano has held administrative positions at UCLA, UC Davis, and CSU Dominguez Hills, his alma mater. In 2016, he retired from Santa Monica College, where he taught English for 27 years. He continues to write, as well as work on numerous issues that affect veterans today.