Einstein, Tagore & Music: Nitin Sawhney & Nicki Wells at TEDxSalford (Transcript)

Nitin Sawhney: Thank you very much. I’m also joined by Nicki Wells, by the way. Give her a round of applause.

So, I’m going to talk to you today about something that I find very interesting, which is hopefully going to come up on that screen. There were two people that I was amazed to find out that actually got together in 1930, in Berlin, for two conversations, and one of which was Albert Einstein, and also Rabindranath Tagore. I was incredulous because these two people came from such different backgrounds, and they talked when they met about everything from physics, philosophy, art, music, and existentialism. But mainly, I’m going to talk about their relationship to music.

So, just to give you a bit of background. Rabindranath Tagore was a Bengali Renaissance man. He was very famous for being a great polymath of the East. He was an Indian polymath, prolific poet, playwright, songwriter, and painter. He also very famously got given the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913 for this collection of poems called Gitanjali, or Geetanjali, I think.

He was also, after that, knighted by George V in 1915, and then subsequently returned it after the Amritsar massacre of 1919. So, that’s just a little bit about Rabindranath Tagore.

The other person is probably better known well across the world, and his name is Albert Einstein. He was, of course, the genius German originator of relativity. He was in search of the ultimate equation and he wanted to know the mind of God. He believed that he could actually really understand the makings and the workings of the universe. He, more than any other human being, probably of the 20th and 21st centuries, actually single-handedly defined the concept of genius. He also was trying to figure out, I suppose, how you could actually unite every single theory going, and explain the universe.

So what do you think the first thing was they said to each other when these two amazing giants of the East and the West met? Well, it might not have been exactly what you might imagine. The first thing that was actually said was by Rabindranath Tagore, and he came up with this interesting opening shot to Albert Einstein, which was where he said, “I was discussing with Doctor Mendel today the new mathematical discoveries which tell us that in the realm of infinitesimal atoms chance has its play; the drama of existence is not predetermined in character” which probably would have been quite a surprise to hear as the first thing that someone says when you walk in the door.

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So, Einstein would have particularly focused on these four words: “Chance has its play.” And the reason he would have focused on those was because he thought that a chance equated with a quantum theory, and particularly with uncertainty, physicists will know that the uncertainty principle from Heisenberg – the quantum physicist – was that the position and momentum of a particle couldn’t be known simultaneously.

So he felt very uncomfortable with that notion and with quantum physics as a whole as he said: “God doesn’t play dice.” He didn’t believe in random occurrences and the quantum weirdness, it didn’t really work in his mind. It might have put him out of a job and left him looking for other work.

So, just to kind of move on from that. He actually postulated the idea of an elegant universe, where absolutely everything could be explained, and he tried to do that simply through equations. Of course, he came up with the most famous equation of all time, where he equated energy of the universe with mass times the speed of light squared. So, he believed in this idea of universal truths – that’s what he was looking for in equations, and he wanted a universal truth that could explain everything.

If we go to Tagore now and look at the way he thought about the concept of universal truth, he took a very different kind of approach to that. I won’t read you the whole of this, but he said, “Truth, which is one with the universal being, must be essentially human.” He was a humanist. It was in the same way the Italian Renaissance was a humanist movement, so was the Bengali Renaissance. He said, “Otherwise, whatever we individuals realize as true never can be called truth.” So essentially, what he was talking about was subjectivity based on ancient Eastern philosophy.

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Einstein, on the other hand, in the same conversation with Tagore, he talked about a hypothetical table in a house and said, “If nobody were in the house, the table would exist all the same, but this is already illegitimate from your point of view, because we cannot explain what it means, that the table is there, independently of us.” So, here he’s talking about objectivity based on Western science.

How does this all relate to music? Well, it’s quite interesting, because first of all, I didn’t know this until a couple of years ago that Einstein was a great classical violinist, and he’d studied violin from the age of five. And in fact, in his later life, he went on to be the vice president of Princeton Symphony Orchestra between 1952 to 1955. So he was quite an accomplished musician and he gave numerous performances. It was said of him that “Einstein relished Mozart, noting to a friend that it was as if the great Wolfgang Amadeus did not ‘create’ his beautifully clear music at all, but simply discovered it already made. This perspective parallels, remarkably, Einstein’s views on the ultimate simplicity of nature and its explanation and statement via essentially simple mathematical expressions.”

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