Biographies For When You're Feeling Low
I never understood the lure of Biographies until college, when life became more of a hedge maze than a forest, and abrupt turns led not to new trails waiting to be forged, but to hard brick walls where they didn't seem like they should be. The freedom you experience in college with your free time and your autonomy over trivial decisions is at odds with, and a great distraction from, the cement hardening around your place in the world. After twenty years of too many options you wake up one day with the recognition that you’re on an increasingly fixed trajectory. For a daydreamer that thrived on the fantasies those options provided, it was a slow poison to realize that so many worlds had fallen away, and something I’m still grappling with and resisting. You can do anything does not mean you get to do everything.
Around this time, history classes began to become more interesting. Suddenly the past didn’t sound so long ago and the stories of the people there so disconnected from what was happening around me. It was a comfort to hear about all the most revered figures in history as ordinary people with an extraordinary ideas being met with unfathomable levels of confusion, wrath, and obstacles. Their thoughts were invariably so foreign to their contemporaries that the mere suggestion generated open hostility. Their careers, then, were defined by the struggle to get that idea across, their whole life spent in service to the sort of notion that seems so obvious looking back at it from our vantage point in the future that we call it history. I could relate.
My current favorite meditation is on the career trajectory of Albert Einstein.
In Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time, the author makes the case that Einstein needed to be a patent clerk to see the breakdown of time at the scale of relativity. As a patent cleric at the turn of the last century, Einstein was on the front lines of the practical implementation of Time Zones. In 1905, known as Einstein’s Miracle Year, he published 4 articles in the Annals of Physics: one on quanta, the idea that energy exists in discrete “packets” or indivisible units, one on Brownian motion , which deals with the motion of particles when they interact with faster moving (heated) particles, special relativity, which connects ideas about energy and magnetism to the laws of mechanics on the basis that light travels at the same speed regardless of observer (a singular phenomenon in this universe), and finally the equivalence of matter and energy, the now famously known E=mc2.
These four articles form the basis of modern physics. But four years after they were published, Einstein still worked at the patent office! It would be 17 years after their publication that Einstein would receive a Nobel prize for “his work in Theoretical Physics, especially the Photoelectric Effect,” as in, pointedly, not for Relativity. After 10 years of nominations, the world still didn’t know how to feel about his ideas, but in an increasingly anti-Semitic 1920’s European environment, he was grudging, finally, recognized for his work. (For more on that, see this Guardian article.)
Einstein was lucky as far as historical figures go. Most don’t ever get to see their own work recognized.
It breaks my heart and makes me beyond weary to think of how hard a person has to fight to make space for a new idea. But seeing that same form of narrative play out over and over and over to eventual success, even after the originator’s death, gives me the courage to know when I find myself in the middle of fight over ideas I feel ought to be self evident, that nothing new was ever born peacefully. If you push on the door and it’s hot, you’ve found the fire.