How Einstein Learned Physics

Einstein was a student long before he became a celebrity. There is a lot to glean from his education and unique approach to learning.

Scott Young (

Wanting to understand how Einstein learned physics may, at first, seem as pointless as trying to fly by watching birds and flapping your arms really hard. How do you emulate someone who is synonymous with genius?

However, I think the investigation can still bear fruits, even if you or I might not have the intellectual gifts to revolutionize physics. Whatever Einstein did to learn, he clearly did something right, so there’s merit in trying to figure out what that was.

How Smart Was Einstein? (Did He Really Fail Elementary Mathematics?)

One of the most common stories about Einstein is that he failed grade school math. I think this is one of those ideas that sounds so good it has to get repeated, regardless of whether it is true or not.

Unfortunately, it’s not true. Einstein was a strong math student from a very young age. He himself admits:

“I never failed in mathematics. Before I was fifteen I had mastered differential and integral calculus.”

While the story about Einstein being an early dullard is certainly false, it’s not the case that he was universally regarded as a genius, either.

Einstein’s grades (highest grade = 6).

In college, Einstein often struggled in math, getting 5s and 6s (out of a possible 6) in physics, but getting only 4s in most of his math courses (barely a passing grade). His mathematics professor, and future collaborator, Hermann Minkowski called him a “lazy dog” and physics professor, Jean Pernet, even flunked Einstein with a score of 1 in an experimental physics course.

At the end of college, Einstein had the dubious distinction of graduating as the second-to-worst student in the class.

The difficulty Einstein had was undoubtedly due in part to his non-conformist streak and rebellious attitude, which didn’t sit well in an academic environment. This would follow him in his future academic career, when he was struggling to find teaching jobs at universities, even after he had already done the work which would later win him the Nobel prize.

Einstein’s discoveries in physics were truly revolutionary, which certainly earns him the title of “genius” by any reasonable standard. However, the early picture of Einstein is more complicated than that. All of this indicates to me, at least, that it can often be very easy to judge the genius of someone after the fact, but perhaps harder to predict in advance.

How Did Einstein Learn Math and Physics?

Given Einstein’s enormous contributions to physics, I think it’s now worthwhile to ask how he learned it.

Throughout the biography, I took notes whenever his methods of learning and discovery were mentioned. Then, I tried to synthesize these observations into several methods or behaviors that appeared to have enabled both Einstein’s revolutionary discoveries and his deep understanding of the subject matter.

1. Learning comes from solving hard problems, not attending classes.

One thing that becomes apparent when looking at Einstein’s early schooling was both his distaste for rote memorization and attending classes. The physics professor that flunked him, did so, in no small part, because Einstein often skipped class. As he claims, “I played hooky a lot and studied the masters of theoretical physics with a holy zeal at home.”

Einstein as a boy.

This habit of skipping classes to focus on solving hard problems in his spare time was one cultivated by his uncle, Jakob Einstein, who first introduced him to algebra. By the time he was 12, Einstein already had a, “predilection for solving complicated problems in arithmetic,” and his parents bought him an advanced mathematical textbook he could study from during the summer.

Einstein learned physics, not by dutifully attending classes, but by obsessively playing with the ideas and equations on his own. Doing, not listening, was the starting point for how he learned physics.

2. You really know something when you can prove it yourself.

How do you know when you really understand something? Einstein’s method was to try prove the proposition himself! This began at an early age, when Uncle Jakob, challenged him to prove Pythagoras’s Theorem:

“After much effort, I succeeded in ‘proving’ this theorem on the basis of the similarity of triangles,” Einstein recalled.

Isaacson explains that Einstein, “tackled new theories by trying to prove them on his own.” This approach to learning physics, which came naturally to Einstein, was driven by a strong curiosity both to know how things actually work, and a belief that, “nature could be understood as a relatively simple mathematical structure.”

What’s important to note here is not only the method of proving propositions to learn physics, but also the drive to do so. It’s clear that Einstein’s curiosity wasn’t merely to perform adequately, but to develop a deep understanding and intuition about physical concepts.

3. Intuition matters more than equations.

Einstein was a better intuitive physicist than he was a mathematician. In fact, it was only when he struggled for years in developing general relativity, that he became more enamored with mathematical formalisms as a way of doing physics.

An early influence which encouraged this intuitive approach to physics was a series of science books by Aaron Bernstein. These books presented imaginative pictures to understand physical phenomenon, such as, “an imaginary trip through space,” to understand an electrical signal and even discussing the constancy of the speed of light, a matter which would later underpin Einstein’s discovery of special relativity.

Swiss education reformer Pestalozzi emphasized learning through images, not by rote.

Einstein’s later education in Aarau, Switzerland, was heavily influenced by the philosophy of Swiss educational reformer, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi. Pestalozzi claimed, “Visual understanding is the essential and only true means of teaching how to judge things correctly,” adding, “the learning of numbers and language must definitely be subordinated.”

Were these early influences causal factors in Einstein’s later preferred style of visualization to solve physics problems, or were they merely a welcome encouragement for a mind that was already predisposed to reasoning in this way? It’s hard to tell. Whatever the case, I think it can be argued that developing intuitions of ideas, particularly visual intuitions, has an invaluable role in physics.

How does one develop those intuitions? Einstein’s own thoughts were that “intuition is nothing but the outcome of earlier intellectual experience.” Einstein’s hard work building understanding through proofs and solving problems undoubtedly supported his ability to visualize as much as it benefited from it.

4. Thinking requires a quiet space and deep focus.

Einstein was a master of deep work. He had an incredible ability to focus, his son reporting:

“Even the loudest baby-crying didn’t seem to disturb Father,” adding, “He could go on with his work completely impervious to noise.”

Although overlooked for academic positions, it was his intellectually unstimulating job at the Bern patent office, which gave him time and privacy to unravel the mysteries of relativity. Einstein remarks:

“I was able to do a full day’s work in only two or three hours. The remaining part of the day, I would work out my own ideas.”

Einstein in his home office.

The obsessive focus Einstein applied to solving problems as a young boy, eventually served him well in cracking general relativity, culminating in an “exhausting four-week frenzy.” This intensity sometimes impacted his health, with him developing stomach problems in his strain to unravel the difficult mathematics of tensor field equations.

Einstein’s ability to focus, combined with a reverence for solitude, allowed him to do some of his best work in physics. Even as he aged, he still spent many hours on his boat, idly pushing the rudder seemingly lost in thought, interrupted by bursts of scribbling equations in his notebook.

5. Understand ideas through thought experiments.

Einstein’s most famous method for learning and discovering physics has to be the thought experiment.

Books such as this were Einstein’s first introduction to the power of thought experiments.

One of his most famous was imagining riding on a beam of light. What would happen to the light beam as he rode alongside it at the same speed? Well, it would have to freeze. This, to Einstein, seemed impossible by his faith in Maxwell’s electromagnetic equations. But if the light doesn’t freeze, what must happen?

These thought experiments were built on his intuitive understanding of physics, which in turn was built on his experience with working through theories and problems. Their strength, however, was to draw attention to contradictions or confusions that may have been missed by a less intuitive physicist.

His ability to engage in thought experiments even served him when he ended up being wrong about the underlying physics. It was exactly this type of thought experiment that he suggested to refute the current understanding of quantum physics in what is now known as the ERP paper, which showed that quantum mechanics could create changes in a system instantaneously, violating the speed of light. In this case, however, Einstein’s intuition was wrong—quantum mechanical systems do behave in such bizarre ways—which is now known as quantum entanglement.

6. Overturn common sense … with more common sense.

Special and general relativity stand out as being some of the most mind-bending scientific discoveries of all time. With special relativity, Einstein discovered that there is no absolute time—that two people moving at different speeds can disagree about the passage of time—with neither being right or wrong. With general relativity, Einstein went further, showing that gravity bends space and time.

Einstein at age 42, the year he won the Nobel prize.

It would be reasonable to assume, therefore, that to overturn such commonsense principles would require some departure from common sense. However, Einstein’s genius was to reconcile two commonsense principles—relativity and the constancy of the speed of light—by discarding a third (the idea of absolute measurements of space and time).

Einstein’s talent, it would seem, lay in his ability to defend what he thought were the most reasonable ideas, even if that meant discarding ones which had a longer tradition of being thought to be correct.

This skill of overturning commonsense with other intuitions may have also eventually been behind his inability to accept quantum mechanics, a very successful theory of physics that he himself helped create. His intuitions about strict determinism, led him to champion an unsuccessful and quixotic quest to overturn the theory for much of his life.

This practice also suggests a method for learning the many, counter-intuitive principles of math and physics—start by building off of a different commonsense premise.

7. Insights come from friendly walks.

While solitude and focus were essential components of how Einstein learned and did physics, it was often conversations with other people that provided his breakthroughs.

Albert Einstein with Michele Besso.

The most famous example of this was a walk with longtime friend Michele Besso. During his struggles with special relativity, he walked with his friend trying to explain his theory. Frustrated, he declared that, “he was going to give up,” working on the theory. Suddenly, however, the correct insight came to him and the next day he told Besso that he had, “completely solved the problem.”

Discussing ideas aloud, sharing them with others, can often put together insights that were previously unconnected. Einstein made great use of this technique of discussing tricky problems with friends and colleagues, even if they were merely a sounding board rather than an active participant in the discussion.

8. Be rebellious.

Einstein was never much of a conformist. While his rebellious streak probably hurt his earlier academic career when he was struggling to find work in physics, it is also probably what enabled his greatest discoveries and accentuated his later celebrity.

This rebelliousness likely helped him in learning physics as he pushed against the traditions and orthodoxy he didn’t agree with. He hated the German educational system, finding in Isaacson’s words, “the style of teaching—rote drills, impatience with questioning—to be repugnant.” This rejection of the common educational method encouraged him to learn physics on his own through textbooks and practice.

Later, the same rebelliousness would be essential in revolutionizing physics. His research on the quantization of light, for instance, had been first discovered by Max Planck. However, unlike the older Planck, Einstein saw the quantization as being a physical reality—photons—rather than a mathematical contrivance. He was less attached to the predominant theory of the time that light was a wave in the ether.

Where many students would have been happy to conform to predominant educational and theoretical orthodoxies, Einstein wasn’t satisfied unless something made sense to him personally.

9. All knowledge starts with curiosity.

“Curiosity has its own reason for existing,” Einstein explains. “One cannot help but be in awe when one contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality.”

Einstein, curious until the end.

This curiosity is probably Einstein’s most defining quality, after his intelligence. His love of physics started as a boy when he was given a compass and fascinated by the idea that the needle moved because of an unseen force.

Curiosity was his motivation for learning physics. Einstein, who could be quite lazy and obstinate when a matter didn’t interest him, nonetheless had an intense passion for understanding the things, “the ordinary adult never bothers his head about.” Curiosity was also, in his own mind, the greatest reason for his accomplishments.

Einstein believed that, “love is a better teacher than a sense of duty.” Love of learning and knowledge is, perhaps, a more important skill to cultivate than discipline.

Learning as Einstein Did

Einstein’s approach towards learning cannot be entirely separated from who he was. Was his obsessive focus a result of his intelligence or his curiosity? Did his ability to easily visualize thought experiments come from encouragement in an unusual Swiss education system, extensive practice or natural ability? Was his revolution in physics a product of genius, rebelliousness, luck or maybe all three? I’m not sure there are clear answers to any of those questions.

What is clear, however, was Einstein’s reverence for nature and the humbled attitude to which he approached investigating it. As he wrote:

“A spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe—a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble.”

And, so even if Einstein’s genius may lay outside the reach of most of us, his curiosity, humility and tenacity are still worth emulating.

This article was originally published on March 16, 2017, by Scott Young, and is republished here with permission.

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Why I’m Wrong About Everything (And So Are You)

Nobody likes being told they’re wrong, but it’s a lot quicker than waiting around to realize it yourself.

Mark Manson (


Five hundred years ago cartographers believed California was an island. Doctors believed that slicing your arm open and bleeding everywhere could cure disease. Scientists believed fire was made out of something called phlogiston. Women believed rubbing dog urine on their face had anti-aging benefits. And astronomers believed the sun revolved around the earth.

When I was a little boy, I used to think “mediocre” was a kind of vegetable and that I didn’t want to eat it. I thought my brother had found a secret passageway in my grandma’s house because he could get outside without having to leave the bathroom (spoiler alert: there was a window). I also thought that when my friend and his family visited “Washington BC” they had somehow traveled back in time to when the dinosaurs lived, because after all, “BC” was a long time ago.

As a teenager, I used to try and not care about anything, when the truth was I actually cared way too much. I thought happiness was a destiny and not a choice. I thought love was something that just happened and not something that was worked for. I thought that being “cool” had to be practiced and learned from others rather than invented for oneself.

When I was with my first girlfriend, I thought she would never leave me. And then when she left me, I thought I’d never feel the same way about a woman again. And then when I felt the same way about a woman again, I thought that love sometimes just wasn’t enough. And then I realized that you get to decide what is “enough,” and love can be whatever you let it be for you, if you so choose.

Every step of the way I was wrong. About everything. All throughout my life, I was flat-out wrong about myself, others, society, culture, the world, the universe, everything. And I hope that will continue to be the case for the rest of my life.

Just as Present Mark can look back on Past Mark’s every flaw and mistake, one day Future Mark will look back on Present Mark’s assumptions and notice similar flaws. And that will be a good thing. Because that will mean I have grown.

There’s that famous Michael Jordan quote about failing over and over and over again, and that’s why he succeeds. Well, I am always wrong about everything, and that’s why my life improves.


We don’t want to hear that we’re wrong. But we need to in order to grow.

Knowledge is an eternal iterative process. We don’t go from “wrong” to “right” once we discover the capital-T Truth. Rather, we go from partially wrong to slightly less wrong, to slightly less wrong than that, to even less wrong than that, and so on. We approach the capital-T truth, but never reach it.

Therefore, from a perspective of happiness/purpose, we should not seek to find the ultimate “right” answer for ourselves, but rather seek to chip away at the ways which we’re wrong today so that we’re a little less wrong tomorrow.

When looked at from this perspective, personal development can actually be quite scientific. The hypotheses are our beliefs. Our actions and behaviors are the experiments. The resulting internal emotions and thought patterns are our data. We can then take those and compare them to our original beliefs and then integrate them into our overall understanding of our needs and emotional make-up for the future.

This approach to personal development is superior because it relies on experience first and foremost, and then proper interpretation of experience through various belief systems second.

For example, let’s say you aspire to be a professional writer. You have assumptions you’ve made about yourself — you’re creative, you love to express yourself, people enjoy your writing, you would be happy writing every day, and so on. And now you want to pursue an end-goal of turning that into a profession.

I get tons of emails from people in this situation and they all ask the same question, “What should I do?”

The answer is easy. You write. A lot.

You test those beliefs out in the real world and get real-world feedback and emotional data from them. You may find that you, in fact, don’t enjoy writing every day as much as you thought you would. You may discover that you actually have a lot of trouble expressing some of your more exquisite thoughts than you first assumed. You realize that there’s a lot of failure and rejection involved in writing and that kind of takes the fun out of it. You also find that you spend more time on your site’s design and presentation than you do on the writing itself, that that is what you actually seem to be enjoying.

And so you integrate that new information and adjust your goals and behaviors accordingly.

This, in a nutshell, is called life. Or at least what life should be. But somewhere along the way we all became so obsessed with being “right” about our lives that we never end up living it.

But it goes beyond that. Sure, rejection hurts. Failure sucks. But there are certainties we hold onto which we are afraid to question or let go of, certainties which meet our needs and give our lives meaning. That woman doesn’t get out there and date because she would be forced to confront her certainty of her own desirability and self-esteem. That man doesn’t ask for the promotion because he would have to confront his certainty about the value of his work and whether he’s actually productive or not.

These certainties are designed to give us moderate comfort now by mortgaging greater happiness later. They’re terrible long-term strategies. These are the certainties that keep us in place and out of touch. These are the certainties that drive people into despair, prejudice or radicalism.

Getting somewhere great in life has less to do with the ability to be right all the time and more to do with the ability to be wrong all the time. What are you wrong about today that can lead to your improvement?

So try it. Assume that you’re wrong — about everything. See where that takes you. Whatever you’re struggling with right now, practice some uncertainty. Ask yourself, “What if I was wrong about this?” Because I can tell you that you are. You are wrong about that and everything else too, just like me and just like everybody else.

And that’s good news.

Because being wrong means change. Being wrong means improvement. It means not cutting your arm open to cure a cold or splashing dog piss on your face to look young again. It means not thinking “mediocre” is a vegetable or being afraid to care.

In five hundred years, people will point and laugh at how we let our money and our jobs define our lives. They will laugh at how we were afraid to show appreciation for those who matter to us most. They will laugh at our rituals and superstitions, our worries and our wars. They will gawk at our cruelty. They will study our art and argue over our history. They will understand truths about us of which none of us are even aware of yet.

And we will have been wrong about pretty much everything. Just as they will be wrong about everything too, albeit a little less wrong.

And maybe, possibly — hopefully! — they will look back on our world and think, “Wow, how did they live like that?”

This article is an excerpt from Mark Manson’s book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Guide to Living A Good Life

This article was originally published on November 21, 2013, by Mark Manson, and is republished here with permission.

Mark Manson is the author of Everything Is F*cked: A Book About Hope.

Sagittarius New Moon

Wendy Cicchetti

Count Your Blessings

“When I’m worried,
And I can’t sleep,
I count my blessings instead of sheep,
And I fall asleep,
Counting my blessings.

When my bankroll,
Is gettin’ small,
I think of when
I had none at all.
And I fall asleep,
Counting my blessings.

I think about a nursery,
And I picture curly heads,
And one by one I count them,
As they slumber,
In their beds.

If you’re worried,
And you can’t sleep,
Just count your blessings instead of sheep,
And you’ll fall asleep,
Counting your blessings.”

The Sagittarius New Moon is next to warrior asteroid Pallas, emphasizing the benefits of strategy and wisdom in our worldly dealings. Sagittarius has much wisdom to draw upon, whether from academic and professional sources or from so-called “university of life” experiences. But strategy is not always the first step for this sign; in theory, the Archer just aims and fires, directly. Yet even archers need to warm up the body to handle successful maneuvers. Where an advantage or an opportunity is sought, there may be someone competing, too, without it being obvious — shown here by the Moon’s dispositor, Jupiter, in a dissociate (out-of-sign) trine to Uranus.

Dissociate aspects are easier to spot if we remember that they occur when planets are in the first or last segments of a sign, usually no more than 5° on either end. Here, Jupiter is at 28° Sagittarius (the last few degrees) and Uranus at 3° Taurus. The dissociate trine’s nature means that we have planets in two different elements. With this mix of one planet in fire and one in earth, our task becomes similar to considering the inherent friction and creative potential of a square. Yet the trine presents greater harmony. As both Jupiter and Uranus have a relatively volatile, lively quality, we might see evidence of usually clashing personalities managing to get along better — or of dynamic forces being able to work together, whereas one might normally outrun, harm, or destroy the other. Political characters come to mind in this scenario, but we may also witness such unusual affinities in our family, social, and professional lives.

Jupiter is also in a dissociate conjunction with Venus in neighboring Capricorn. Jupiter may be the “bigger” planet, but we could argue that the early degree of Venus in the next sign (0° Capricorn) has the quality of leading the way, even if relatively inexperienced in doing whatever Venus in Capricorn represents! Either way, Venus–Uranus in an earth trine speaks to solid, down-to-earth practicality as a way forward, whilst Jupiter might be entertaining visions and aspiring to loftier heights. This mix of trines may also be telling us that both ways work! Even so, the Venus–Uranus aspect, in early degrees, points towards a “new normal” starting to emerge. Venus shows that a toned-down approach is more effective, compared with Jupiter’s grandiose gestures. An earth-sign focus hints that scaling down may relate to economic priorities. Although cutting out frills may initially seem unattractive, it could simplify life and add greater security.

Uranus is also quincunx the New Moon, which points to recognizing where anything is not working. A quincunx frequently represents a blind spot; we could suddenly see something previously overlooked, and then feel enabled to take significant action. Occasionally, this aspect reveals illness, but with Uranus involved, there is the potential for help from an unexpected source. It is likely worth acting on an inner prompt to reach out to someone with plenty of experience, as the Uranus link to Venus in Capricorn attests to solid advice from a person with accumulated learning — possibly one with more feminine attributes. Venus can also symbolize a charming nature, so this aspect may represent being able to find enough rapport with someone to trust that they can assist with an important therapy or operation. Venus’s link with sugar and sweetness may also be relevant and, given the trine to Uranus, plus the Uranus quincunx to the Moon, could indicate a need to take action regarding sugar or carbohydrates in the diet.

This article is from the Mountain Astrologer, written by Diana Collis.

The Prodigal Daughter

by Pam Rodolph, H.W., m.

Drawing by Heather Williams, H.W,. M.

I have been away a long time – away from The Prosperos and from its members. I took a long vacation from The Prosperos, but not from their methods. And particularly, when the cards were down (so to speak), I have instinctively grabbed onto those methods over the years and held tight, for they were the most complete I knew. In spite of that, during my time away, I allowed cynicism to slowly build its subtle web around my heart. I became particularly cynical about The Prosperos. I later realized that, that cynicism existed to the same degree that I was closed off, in general, to the world around me. Cynicism choked off openness, authenticity, and the race to embrace life.

There have been two areas in my life where people congregate that have cracked that shell of hardness, letting me breathe again, become young again, bask in the sunlight again  – AA and The Prosperos. While AA would open me to a feeling of well beingness, The Prosperos would explode me into far deeper realms, where expansion, knowingness, realization seemed as large and all encompassing as the universe itself. Its total message was brought to bear again last year when I attended assembly after years of being away. It energized me in a way that has not dissipated yet.

I used to tell myself such things as, “The Prosperos is dead. Thane isn’t here anymore. The Prosperos is irrelevant”. But I found just the opposite. Yes, our numbers have dwindled. But when did we ever judge our relevancy by numbers? Our real message is to those who are capable of tireless, deeply honest work on themselves, people who don’t allow cynicism to frame their viewpoint of reality. Those people have always been hard to find. I was amazed at how many people DID attend assembly last year, how flawless and professional it unfolded, how vital the talks were.

I didn’t get that warm fuzzy feeling I use to get at AA meetings. Instead, I felt a burgeoning vitality, a pristine soaring inspiration and I remembered all the subtle things I had forgotten about this organization and its members ——— members who are so utterly special that I have seldom encountered their ilk elsewhere. They are mirrors of the best kind, showing me not the worst in myself, but a beacon to what is best in me. As much as I love their contact online, there is nothing like experiencing them in person at Assembly. Just like live class, an energy trips the encounter into a higher level of experience.

As President of the High Watch, as important as new students are, I would particularly love for more of its members to come to Colorado next year to add their presence, and thus their energy to this synergistic experience. I hope to see you there. I can assure you, you won’t be disappointed. 

The Isolated Ones: Vincent van Gogh

The very first review of Van Gogh’s art

G.-Albert Aurier
Mercure de France, January, 1890 (

Beneath skies that sometimes dazzle like faceted sapphires or turquoises., that sometimes are molded of infernal, hot, noxious, and blinding sulfurs; beneath skies like streams of molten metals and crystals, which, at times, expose radiating, torrid solar disks; beneath the incessant and formidable streaming of every conceivable effect of light, in heavy, flaming, burning atmospheres that seem to be exhaled from fantastic furnaces where gold and diamonds and similar gems are volatilized–there is the disquieting and disturbing display of a strange nature, that is at once entirely realistic, and yet almost supernatural, of an excessive nature where everything–beings and things, shadows and lights, forms and colours–rears and rises up with a raging will to howl its own essential song in the most intense and fiercely high-pitched timbre: Trees, twisted like giants in battle, proclaiming with the gestures of their gnarled menacing arms and with the tragic waving of their green manes their indomitable power, the pride of their musculature, their blood-hot sap, their eternal defiance of hurricane, lightning and malevolent Nature; cypresses that expose their nightmarish, flamelike, black silhouettes, mountains that arch their backs like mammoths or rhinoceri; white and pink and golden orchards, like the idealizing dreams of virgins; squatting, passionately contorted houses, in a like manner to beings who exult, who suffer, who think; stones, terrains, bushes, grassy fields, gardens, and rivers that seem sculpted out of unknown minerals, polished, glimmering, iridescent, enchanting, flaming landscapes, like the effervescence of multicoloured enamels in some alchemist’s diabolical crucible; foliage that seems of ancient bronze, of new copper, of spun glass; flowerbeds that appear less like flowers than opulent jewelry fashioned from rubies, agates, onyx, emeralds, corundums, chrysoberyls, amethysts, and chalcedonies; it is the universal, mad and blinding coruscation of things; it is matter and all of Nature frenetically contorted . . . raised to the heights of exacerbation; it is form, becoming nightmare; colour, becoming flame, lava and precious stone; light turning into conflagration; life, into burning fever.

Such . . . is the impression left upon the retina when it first views the strange, intense, and feverish work of Vincent van Gogh, that compatriot, and unworthy descendent of the old Dutch masters.

Oh! How far are we–are we not?–from the beautiful, great traditional art, so healthy and very well balanced, of the Dutch past. How far from the . . . de Hooghes, the van der Meers, the van der Heydens and from their charming canvases, a bit bourgeois, so patiently detailed, so phlegmatically overfinished, so scrupulously meticulous! How far from the handsome landscapes, so restrains, so well balanced, so timelessly enveloped in soft tones, grays, and indistinct haze, those . van Ostades, Potters, van Goyens, Ruisdaels, Hobbemas! . . . How far from the delicate, always somewhat cloudy and somber colours of the northern countries . . . .

And yet, make no mistake, Vincent van Gogh has by no means transcended his heritage. He was subject to the effect of the ineluctable atavistic laws. He is good and duly Dutch, of the sublime lineage of Frans Hals.

And foremost, like all his illustrious compatriots, he is indeed a realist, a realist in the fullest sense of the term. Ars est homo, additus naturae, Chancellor Bacon said, and Monsieur Emile Zola defined naturalism as “nature seen through the temperament.” Well, it is this “homo additus,” this “through a temperament,” or this molding of the objective unity into a subjective diversity, that complicates the question and abolishes the possibility of any absolute criterion for gauging the degrees of the artist’s sincerity. To determine this, the critic is thus inevitably reduced to more or less hypothetical, but always questionable, conclusions. Nevertheless, in the case of Vincent van Gogh, in my opinion, despite the sometimes misleading strangeness of his works, it is difficult for an unprejudiced and knowledgeable viewer to deny or question the naive truthfulness of his art, the ingeniousness of his vision. Indeed, independent of this indefinable aroma of good faith and of the truly seen that all his paintings exude, the choice of subjects, the constant harmony between the most excessive colour notes, the conscientious study of character, the continual search for the essential sign of each thing, a thousand significant details undeniably assert his profound and almost childlike sincerity, his great love for nature and for truth–his own personal truth.

Given this, we are thus able to infer legitimately from Vincent van Gogh’s works themselves his temperament as a man, or rather, as an artist–an inference that I could, if I wished, corroborate with biographical facts. What characterizes his works as a whole is its excess . . . of strength, of nervousness, its violence of expression. In his categorical affirmation of character of things, in his often daring simplification of forms, in his insolence in confronting the sun head-on, in the vehement passion of his drawing and colour, even to the smallest details of his technique, a powerful figure is revealed . . . masculine, daring, very often brutal . . . yet sometimes ingeniously delicate . . . .

And how could we explain that obsessive passion for the solar disk that he loves to make shine forth from his emblazoned skies.

Yet, this respect and his love for the reality of things does not suffice alone to explain or to characterize the profound, complex, and quite distinctive art of Vincent van Gogh. No doubt, like all the painters of his race, he is very conscious of material reality, of its importance and its beauty, but even more often, he considers this enchantress only as a sort of marvelous language destined to translate the Idea. He is, almost always, a Symbolist . . . who feels the continual need to clothe his ideas in precise, ponderable, tangible forms, in intensely sensual and material exteriors. In almost all his canvases, beneath this morphic exterior, beneath this flesh that is very much flesh, beneath this matter that is very much matter, there lies, for the spirit, that knows how to find it, a thought, an idea, and this Idea, the essential substratum of the work, is, at the same time, its efficient and final cause. As for the brilliant and radiant symphonies of colour and line, whatever may be their importance for the painter in his work they are simply expressive means, simply methods of symbolization. Indeed, if we refuse to acknowledge the existence of these idealistic tendencies beneath this naturalist art, a large part of the body of work that we are studying would remain utterly incomprehensible. How would we explain, for example, The Sower that august and disturbing sower, that rustic with his brutally brilliant forehead (bearing at times a distant resemblance to the artist himself), whose silhouette, gesture, and labour have always obsessed Vincent van Gogh, and whom he painted and repainted so often, sometimes beneath skies rubescent at sunset, sometimes amid the golden dust of blazing noons–how could we explain The Sower without considering that idée fixe. that haunts his brain about the necessary advent of a man, a messiah, sower of truth, who would regenerate the decrepitude of our art and perhaps our imbecile and industrialist society? And how could we explain that obsessive passion for the solar disk that he loves to make shine forth from his emblazoned skies, and, at the same time, for that other sun, that vegetable-star, the sumptuoous sunflower, which he repeats, tirelessly, monomaniacally, if we refuse to accept his persistent preoccupation with some vague and glorious heliomythic allegory?

Source: Van Gogh: The Passionate Eye by Pascal Bonafoux (Discoveries, 1992)

The Dunning-Kruger Effect

In the field of psychology, the Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which people assess their cognitive ability as greater than it is. It is related to the cognitive bias of illusory superiority and comes from the inability of people to recognize their lack of ability.


Here’s a List of School Shootings in 2019

The attack at Saugus High School in California on Thursday is at least the 11th this year on a high school or college campus, which have resulted in at least six deaths.

Law enforcement and emergency personnel responded to a shooting on Thursday at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, Calif.
Law enforcement and emergency personnel responded to a shooting on Thursday at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, Calif.Credit…David Walter Banks for The New York Times
Julie Bosman

By Julie Bosman

November 14, 2019 (

Across the country this year, according to media reports, at least 11 shootings have taken place on American high school or college campuses, including the attack in Santa Clarita, Calif., on Thursday. And school officials and law enforcement agencies have responded to dozens more credible threats of attacks.

The shootings have occurred inside gyms and classrooms, in parking lots and hallways, and in the crowd at a high school football game.

The New York Times defined a school shooting as one that occurred on campus, in which students were shot, or the suspected perpetrator was a student, or both.Student Kills 2 at California High SchoolA suspect was in custody after a shooting at a high school north of Los Angeles, the police said. They said the suspect was a student and he carried out the attack on his birthday.Nov. 14, 2019

A 14-year-old at Manassas High School was shot with a pellet gun at school, according to news reports. The student’s injury was not life-threatening.

A man entered Frederick Douglass High School and shot and injured a staff member, prompting students to hide in their classrooms at the sound of gunfire. The police said they believed that the gunman had targeted the victim, a 56-year-old special education assistant.

A teenage girl was shot and killed outside a high school after an argument at an evening basketball game. The police said that the assailant and girl knew each other, and that it appeared the suspect had waited in the parking lot for her.

A 17-year-old student at Robert E. Lee High School was shot and wounded in an arm by another student, the police said. The school was placed on lockdown and the assailant was arrested. According to news media reports, it was the second time in two years that a student had taken a gun to that school and shot another student.

A 14-year-old eighth grader at Prescott High School was shot and injured by a classmate, who the authorities said took a concealed handgun to school.

Two students were killed and four others were wounded after a gunman opened fire in an anthropology class at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. One of the students who was killed, Riley Howell, was credited with charging and body-slamming the gunman, stopping the massacre.

One student was killed and eight others were injured in an attack on an English class at STEM School Highlands Ranch. Two students were apprehended and charged with the shooting, which took place near Columbine High School, the site of a massacre 20 years ago.

A Savannah State University student was shot and wounded in a residential hall on campus. The authorities said a man who was not a student was arrested in the shooting.

Nine people between the ages of 15 and 18 were wounded when gunfire broke out at a high school football game. The police arrested and charged a 17-year-old student in the shooting, and later sought a second assailant when they found evidence of shots fired by a different gun.

A 17-year-old gunman shot a schoolmate twice just outside Ridgway High School and then walked calmly in to class, where his teacher did not realize anything was amiss, the police said. The victim survived.

Julie Bosman is a national correspondent who covers the Midwest. Born and raised in Wisconsin and based in Chicago, she has written about politics, education, law enforcement and literature. @juliebosman 

(Contributed by William P. Chiles)

Kahlil Gibran on Silence, Solitude, and the Courage to Know Yourself

By Maria Popova (


Something strange and wondrous begins to happen when one spends stretches of time in solitude, in the company of trees, far from the bustle of the human world with its echo chamber of judgments and opinions — a kind of rerooting in one’s deepest self-knowledge, a relearning of how to simply be oneself, one’s most authentic self. Wendell Berry knew this when he observed that “true solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation” — the places where “one’s inner voices become audible.”

But that inner voice, I have found, exists in counterpoise to the outer voice — the more we are tasked with speaking, with orienting lip and ear to the world without, the more difficult it becomes to hear the hum of the world within and feel its magmatic churns of self-knowledge. “Who knows doesn’t talk. Who talks doesn’t know,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in in her superb poetic, philosophical, feminist more-than-translation of the Tao te Ching.


Kahlil Gibran, self-portrait

Two and a half millennia after Lao Tzu, and a century before Le Guin and Berry, Kahlil Gibran (January 6, 1883–April 10, 1931) — another philosopher-poet of the highest order and most timeless hold — addressed the relationship between silence, solitude, and self-knowledge in a portion of his 1923 classic The Prophet (public library).

When Gibran’s prophet-protagonist is asked to address the matter of talking, he responds:


You talk when you cease to be at peace with your thoughts;
And when you can no longer dwell in the solitude of your heart you live in your lips, and sound is a diversion and a pastime.
And in much of your talking, thinking is half murdered.
For thought is a bird of space, that in a cage of words may indeed unfold its wings but cannot fly.


One of Andrea Dezsö’s haunting illustrations for the original, uncensored edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

Echoing Hermann Hesse’s insistence on the courage necessary for solitude, Gibran’s prophet adds:


There are those among you who seek the talkative through fear of being alone.
The silence of aloneness reveals to their eyes their naked selves and they would escape.
And there are those who talk, and without knowledge or forethought reveal a truth which they themselves do not understand.
And there are those who have the truth within them, but they tell it not in words.
In the bosom of such as these the spirit dwells in rhythmic silence.

Complement this fragment of the The Prophet — an abidingly rewarding read in its totality — with sound ecologist Gordon Hempton on the art of listening in a noisy world and Paul Goodman on the nine kinds of silence, then revisit Gibran on the building blocks of true friendshipthe courage to weather the uncertainties of love, and what may be the finest advice ever offered on parenting and on the balance of intimacy and independence in a healthy relationship.