Andre Weil, Albert Einstein and environments of failure

One of the strengths of Zena Hitz’s book Lost in Thought is in the variety of intellectual examples she offers. Hitz doesn’t limit examples of the intellectual life to literature and philosophy. Instead she reminds us mathematics and science are vital intellectual disciplines.

Her two major examples include Albert Einstein and Andre Weil the French mathematician. Hitz uses their two career paths to explore how environments of failure – Einstein’s stint at a patent office, Weil’s time in prison, provided the ingredients for mathematical breakthroughs to flourish.

The ingredients being the absence of needing to comply with their profession’s expectations. Their environments of failure allowed them to pursue their ideas for the sake of curiosity.

On Einstein’s patent office stint:

But it is a cloister for Einstein, since in the office there were no hotshot professors to impress, no university administrators to placate, no students to whom he had to justify his existence. It is, then, chiefly a place where the love of learning is put to the test, where ambition is frustrated, where his work has to run on its own power without the grease of seeking out carrots and avoiding sticks. In the quiet of the patent office the beauty of the structures of nature can take hold of him and display itself with clarity.

Chapter 1, A Refuge from the World. pg 64. Zena Hitz Lost in Thought, the Hidden Pleasures on an Intellectual Life.

On Andre Weil, who’s imprisonment allowed him to focus on the mathematical proof – Riemann hypotheses for curves over finite fields:

One might think that the reasons Weil produced better mathematical work in prison are straightforward: more free time, fewer distractions of ordinary life. But Weil jokes about prison’s advantage for “pure and disinterested research” and, echoing Einstein, praises the beauty of his theorems. So he too suggests that his work was nurtured by separation from social or political agendas, competition, social hierarchy, objects of ambition, the expectations of others. The pursuit of beautiful theorems might elsewhere be crowded out by things that seemed more pressing but that ultimately mattered less.

Chapter 1, A Refuge from the World. pg 67. Zena Hitz Lost in Thought, the Hidden Pleasures on an Intellectual Life.

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