"I know not what I appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore” – Sir Isaac Newton
Of course, this observation does not apply just to the Newtonian physicists. The September issue of Discover Magazine observes: “Einstein had the genius to view space and time like a child,” as with his thought experiments of riding a light-beam. "His breakthrough realization of the relativity of time turned on a series of mental cartoons featuring trains and clocks. General relativity, his theory of gravity, started off as a meditation on what happens when a man falls off a roof."
And the fantastic physicist Feynman (the first person to propose nanotechnology in his 1960 lecture “There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom”) is especially child-like: "When Richard Feynman faced a problem he was unusually good at going back to being like a child, ignoring what everyone else thinks and saying, 'Now, what have we got here?'" – The Science of Creativity, p.102.
For a humorous aside, the T.H.O.N.G. protesters remixed Feynman as "Plenty of Room at This Bottom."
Lest we think that childishness is reserved for physicists, I am reminded of my meeting with James Watson, co-discoverer of the DNA double helix. His breakthrough technique: fiddling with metal models and doodling the fused rings of adenine on paper. I like this summary: “Watson can himself be quite the double helix – a sharp scientific mind intertwined with a child-like innocence.”
How far can this generalize? In Creating Minds: An Anatomy of Creativity Seen Through the Lives of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, and Gandhi, the author “finds a childlike component in each of their creative breakthroughs.”
This final quote reminds me of a wonderful echo of Michael Schrage’s claim that reality is the opposite of play:
“One thing I have learned in a long life: that all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike – and yet it is the most precious thing we have.”
– Albert Einstein