The Bulletin

Masters of Physics, Imagination and Play

Friday, January 2013

This article by Leo Barron is reprinted from the Waldorf Science Newsletter, Vol 18., #28, Autumn 2012. To read the full newsletter or for more information please visit the Waldorf Online Library.

As profound as was the work of Einstein and Niels Bohr in physics, their thoughts and practice in education were of the same nature. In 1952 Einstein wrote an article titled, Education for Independent Thought:

“Overemphasis on the competitive system and premature specialization on the grounds of immediate usefulness kills the spirit on which all cultural life depends, specialized knowledge included. This competitive mentality prevails in schools and destroys feelings of human fraternity and cooperation. It conceives of achievement not as derived from love for thoughtful and productive work, but as springing from personal ambition and fear of rejection. “

He later would say: “The essential purpose is to decide for yourself what is of genuine value in life… and then to find the courage to take your own thoughts seriously.” At the turn of the 20th century Einstein changed our perception of time and space. Now in the early years of the 21st century he can help change the common perception of what constitutes the basics in education.

He saw no causal relationship between competence in reading, writing, and mathematical skills, and being an imaginative, generous-hearted human being. The three Rs are crucial and critical tools; nevertheless, they are only tools. Einstein said, “Let us not forget that knowledge and skills alone cannot lead humanity to a happy and dignified life. Something more is needed to produce a truly educated person.” The magic for Einstein was in the “something more”—a mix of fairness, beauty, and playfulness … the building blocks, the energy field for encouraging wonder, discipline, and generous heart.

The proof is in the pudding. Find anyone whose life is grounded in these qualities and you will be in the company of someone who leads a fertile life and is dearly loved. It is a beautiful equation—an E = mc2 for our time.

Imagine any setting at home, at work, or in the street in which these qualities set the tone forth time. Imagine sending your child off to school where fairness, beauty and playfulness fill the air in the classroom, the hallways, and in the neighborhood. Imagine that.

Late in Einstein’s life he was talking with a group of parents about children, and he said, “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. “He then smiled and added, “If you want your children to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”

Niels Bohr was mentor and companion for two groups of people: the physicists who came to Copenhagen to work with him and his children and grandchildren. The physicists came from everywhere; they were the young stars in the world of physics. The first line of business was quantum mechanics, and Copenhagen was the center of that dazzling enterprise. The informality at the Institute was unlike anything anywhere in scientific circles; all had equal standing, a newly minted PhD or a Nobel Prizewinner. What mattered was the strength of an idea, from whomever it came.

In this spirit of open and critical inquiry, these brilliant theorists ate and worked together, they walked, skied, made music, and went to the movies together, and they played Ping-Pong, the favorite indoor sport at the Institute. And these very literate physicists made up skits. In1932, on the 100th anniversary of Goethe’s death, it was a parody of his Faust. Bohr was the Lord; Pauli, quite naturally, was Mephisto; and in perfect casting was the conflicted Ehrenfest as Faust. And these wild-minded theorists also had great fun playing soccer with Bohr’s children. The mixing of ages was a keen passion for Bohr.

Niels Bohr had six sons, eight grandsons, and nine granddaughters, and all were gifted by Bohr’s dramatic reading of the old fairy tales, particularly the Icelandic sagas that had been read to him as a child. The children had their favorites and often one of them would shout out, “Oh, Grandpa, read it again, please, please.” And Bohr would shake his head and do it again as if he were telling it for the first time ever.

It was hands-on experience at the Bohrs’ as youngsters helped in the garden, the kitchen, and a host of other projects including planning parties and other gatherings. Bohr was fond of saying that imitation is a prime method of learning, and combined with a child’s energy and curiosity, there are many opportunities for children to be happily engaged while gaining a sense of their own abilities. The children especially loved to be outdoors and/or would often join in their play. When caught once in the middle of a romp, he said, “I love playing with children. “

The Bohrs, Niels and Margreth, were models of kindness, and with a house full of children there were occasions when being fair was part of the conversation around the dinner table. For Bohr, being fair was more than a moral issue, for in being fair one witnesses people and events in a clearer light. Fairness is at the root of wisdom. It all begins with being fair.

Bohr’s openness to experience was passed on the children. Aage, one of Bohr’s sons, who also won Nobel Prize, shared a thought about his father's ways: “Our father was very good at teaching us how to make mistakes.”

Over the last twenty years Len Barron has been presenting his one-person theatre piece, “Walking Lightly… A Portrait of Einstein” and now his latest work, “Einstein and Niels Bohr…A Fairy Tale,” for a range of audiences across the country. He has worked with students and faculty at all levels, sharing Einstein and Bohr’s perspective on education.