“Genius hesitates”

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I read Carlo Rovelli’s book Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, a layperson’s description of the big breakthroughs in modern physics. It’s a blast, but one throwaway comment really struck me.

Rovelli is discussing Einstein’s 1900 paper about photons and light. He quotes what Einstein wrote …

It seems to me that the observations associated with blackbody radiation, flourescence, the production of cathode rays by ultraviolet light, and other related phenomena connected with the emission or transformation of light are more readily understood if one assumes that the energy of light is discontinuously distributed in space.

Then Rovelli makes a nifty point …

These simple and clear lines are the real birth certificate of quantum theory. Note the wonderful initial “It seems to me …,” which recalls the “I think … ” with which Darwin introduces in his notebooks the great idea of that species evolve, or the “hesistation” spoken of by Farraday when introducing to the first time the revolutionary idea of magnetic fields. Genius hesitates.

Genius hesitates. I love that! When we approach a truly enormous idea, of the sort that tilts the world on its axis, we’re not excited and arrogant and confident. We’re unsure; we hesitate. I’ve noticed this in the scientists I interview. The ones who are doing really groundbreaking work are tentative, cautious, almost unsettled by the implications of what they’re saying.

It’s not a bad litmus test for the people around us in everyday life. The ones who are proposing genuinely startling and creative ideas are liable to be … careful about it. It’s the ones with small ideas who are shouting them from the rooftops.

By the way, that notebook of Darwin that Rovelli mentions? It’s online, and here’s the page he talks about. You can see Darwin scribble “I THINK” at the top …
darwin's notebook
The full scan of the page from Rovelli’s book is below the jump if you want to see it …

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2 thoughts on ““Genius hesitates”

  1. Ken Knudson

    Idiots and the ill-informed don’t hesitate, and seem to talk louder and faster than most. One of my nephews-by-marriage comes to mind…

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