Albert Einstein: genius on a bike

by Raymond Parker on January 24, 2011

in Advocacy, Cycling, Social

I thought of that while riding my bike. ~Albert Einstein

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UVIC ad (Click to enlarge)

The cover of the latest University of Victoria Course Calendar bears the provocation “Albert Einstein didn’t know how to drive a car. Everyone can learn something new.”
The copy sits in a grey cloud, atop a photograph of a commuter riding a classic utility bicycle across flagstones.

It’s a silly advert, I know, (I used to create silly advertising) but it got me thinking.

The thesis—if it can be regarded as such—presumes that lacking such a basic skill as driving infers some kind of deficiency. Why, you’ll be reduced to … riding a bike!

And, in a world where 16-year-olds “graduate” to motoring on the flimsiest of entry exams, the belief is normalized.

In contrast, Einstein grew up in Munich, Germany, before the rise of the automobile. He pursued his early work in Zurich, Switzerland, where he surely would have enjoyed a reliable public transportation system. When he moved to the United States, he might have felt no need to “learn” to use America’s illogical, entirely wasteful and unsustainable form of personal transport.

The presumption behind the UVIC advert is that because Einstein preferred to get around Princeton University by bicycle, this was somehow a sign of weakness in an otherwise inquisitive mind.

But what if the celebrated genius did not see driving a car as learning “something new” or adding value to his busy life? Could it be that the mathematician had calculated the pros and cons of automobile use and concluded that car ownership was a net loss?

Great thinkers work in the future, or at least project trends forward. The future bids us to imagine “something new.” It may well be that Einstein had evolved beyond car culture.

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Einstein Rides, Santa Barbara, CA

We know that he thought great thoughts on the bike. He said so. Cyclists have often mused, as I have, that the bicycle is a wonderful “reverie machine.”

It may well be that inventive minds have unravelled mysteries while driving their car through the countryside. I’d like to think, however, that invigorating the heart and pumping more oxygen to the brain might inspire more human technologies and new ways of seeing our place on this embattled planet.

Great universities are incubators of innovation; they encourage minds to challenge the orthodoxies of their time and perhaps solve problems that stand in the way of progress.

The skills of one age often become relics in the next, but I’m betting the benefits of bicycles, along with integrated public transport, will survive among the most valuable imperatives of the future.

I trust the droves of students who cycle to-and-from UVIC know what I’m getting at.

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