Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Reading 'The Night I Met Einstein'

       I just finished reading a short essay entitled, The Night I Met Einstein.  The link was sent to me, via email, by a good friend.   Although we have not seen each other for thirteen years, we are in frequent internet contact.

       So I checked the website where it was posted.  The email had got it right.  The webster said there was no known copyright info, and went with it.  Bravo.

       I enjoyed the story.  It was about one of those human moments that make historic figures come really alive.  People and places suddenly take on dimension, and color.  Crucial insights into the inner person are revealed.

       But was the story true?  After all, this is the internet, and anybody can  . . .

       For instance, I had never heard of the author, Jerome Weidman.  (Sorry -- so many good authors, so many great links.)  So I checked out Wikipedia.  Oh, I know.  Wikipedia cannot be cited as a source in a "real" published work.  I have students who tell me this all the time.  Wikipedia is often hacked, they worry.  Its information is unbalanced, they warn.  Untrustworthy.  Unprofessional.  Et cetera.  Their teachers tell them so.

       Still, I found out from Wikipedia that Jerome Weidman was a real person.   That he was born and died at known times.  He was a writer; he was a part of New York culture; he had Jewish antecedents; he wrote some great short stories.  All fit the narrative; but if Wikipedia is unreliable, we still have no proof.  And even if the source is credible, was someone borrowing Weidman's good name just to write a hack piece to make us "feel good" about some famous man?  You know, like George Washington And The Cherry Tree, or Abraham Lincoln Taking Three Pennies To The Poor Widow?  Or Al Gore The Father Of The Internet?

       So I googled on "weidman einstein" -- didn't even have to capitalize or punctuate anything -- and pop!  there was a reference to a Readers' Digest article, November 1955.  From the facsimile of the cover, I could make out that there really was an article of that title, published under that author's name, in that magazine.   I found it further interesting that Einstein died in that year, and so it was logical that some "I-knew-this-great-man" articles would be published at that time in the popular press.  So I figure I've done enough due diligence.  I can heartily recommend this article to you as authentic.

       Now here is a little question.  Is somebody's intellectual property right being violated here?  Certainly not the author's:  he passed away in 1998.  The publishers of Readers' Digest?  Well, DeWitt and Lila Wallace have been gone even longer -- since the 1980s. (Yep. Wikipedia again.)  Does some successor corporation retain the worldwide publication rights?  Oh, probably there is a lawyer and a judge somewhere who can be persuaded to think so.   Where there's a will, there's litigation.  And there's never been a law yet that somebody couldn't turn into sausage.

       Or, let's get even more personal.  Could I be held guilty of conspiracy to defraud Successor Corporation B if I urged you to go to the website located at  . . . dot-com?  Am I being absurd?  I would like to think so, but there are people being prosecuted for the very horrible crime of having downloads on their personal computers.   The software police are out there, faithfully protecting us -- or somebody.

       And there are other people currently spending unlimited time in US prisons (I didn't say serving sentences; many of them have not had the dignity of trial and sentence) for doing even less:  for doing, in fact, precisely nothing, except allowing themselves to be kidnapped by some of their bounty-hunting countrymen and getting sold to bounty-paying agents of the US government for $25,000.  Global War on Terror; you know.

       And while we're on that subject.  (Which we have been, as a nation, for over nine years.  And I didn't bring it up; and you didn't either; but it's here; and it's going to be here until the last political or military prisoner is released, and their captors and wardens held to answer for what they have done.  Which doesn't look like it is going to happen any time soon.)

       As I say, while we're on that subject:  Given that the civilian leadership of our country are Republicans and Democrats; and given that they, the leaders of both parties, are jointly and severally liable for continuing acts of terror, sabotage, deception, kidnapping, murder, bombing, unlawful imprisonment, starting aggressive wars -- all of which are in violation of (a) international law (b) the US Constitution (c) the Holy Scriptures (d) natural law, or (e) all of the above; pick one --

       . . . then if you are a member of the Republican or Democratic Parties, or vote for their agents, are you not a member of a terrorist organization, giving them aid and comfort -- according to our own current legal climate, which you do not energetically oppose?  (Unless, of course, you do energetically oppose it.)

       Am I kidding?  No, I'm concerned.

       After World War II, people who were merely members of the Nazi Party were held responsible for all of Hitler's crimes.  "We didn't know,"  they said.  "You should have known," we said.  Collective guilt, it was called.

       During the Cold War, Americans who carried Communist Party cards were held responsible for all of the malicious evil that emanated from the Kremlin.  "The Soviets are communists; they are mass murderers.  You are a communist; therefore you are, etc."  Guilt by association.  This all may have happened before your lifetime; it happened during mine.

       *       *       *

       Did you notice how I just killed the nice opening of this article with a combination of legalism and fear?  Do I think you are "really guilty"?  No.  Nor am I.  But also, neither are a lot of people that we, and/or our media, and/or our government,  deem guilty. 

       So I think it's time that we-the-people did some reassessing of our responsibilities, and the very real-world effects of what we think, say, and do.  Or that others do in our name.

       In my view, we live in a very, very screwed-up world.  And country.

       *       *       *

       Back to the beginning.

       The real original purpose of this post was to share a link to a story that I find intellectually satisfying and deeply humane.  It makes me want to love that flawed old scientist, Einstein, who managed to see so much.  It makes me want to know more of Jerome Weidman through his writings.

       If you are interested in the article, you can find it on the net in about 10 seconds.  Enjoy.   And I hope to hear from you in the comments section.



  1. I liked the part in the story where Weidman must first answer Einstein's query:

    "Regardless of what value I place on my part in the verbal exchange, to this man his part in it mattered very much. Above all, I could feel that this was a man to whom you did not tell a lie, however small."

    There seems to be a recurring theme about the presence of truly great men -- a detectable moral aura; and a genuine interest in strangers; and in experiencing truth and beauty.

    Perhaps more significant to me is his instruction to teachers, implicit in this part of the dialog:


    'Nonsense!' said Einstein. 'It proves everything! Do you remember your first arithmetic lesson in school? Suppose, at your very first contact with numbers, your teacher had ordered you to work out a problem in , say, long division or fractions. Could you have done so?'

    'No, of course not.'

    'Precisely!' Einstein made a triumphant wave with his pipestem. 'It wold have been impossible and you would have reacted in panic. You would have closed your mind to long division and fractions. As a result, because of that one small mistake by your teacher, it is possible your whole life you would be denied the beauty of long division and fractions.'

    The pipestem went up and out in another wave.

    'But on your first day no teacher would be so foolish. He would start you with elementary things -- then, when you had acquired skill with the simplest problems, he would lead you up to long division and to fractions.'


    In your experience, are today's teachers so careful?

  2. Robert,

    No, teachers are not so careful these days. There are standards to uphold, agencies to please, funding numbers need to be justified. The children, the parents, the community, the love of learning--who cares, right?

  3. Many Teachers may not be as careful as they should be about how they teach, but I think that this may not be the main problem with many teachers today. I think that too many teachers today don't teach, they babysit and give assignments and let the books do the teaching. Also I for the little while that I did go to a public school I noticed that one of the primary goals of the school was to teach the students how to pass the state required testing. This did not help me learn anything in fact it just made me not want to go to school.
    In my opinion the messed up system of education in this country goes hand in hand with the messed up government that we the people allow to run this country.
    Besides becoming a teacher what can we do to change the system?

  4. The story was published in the November 1955 edition of Readers Digest, with Jerome Weidman getting the byline. Just FYI