It is hard to fathom why the world descended into the anti-intellectualism and fundamentalism that have become the mark of many societies. It is hard to understand why a striving for excellence became regarded as elitist and why an objection to dumbing-down would invite a flood of textspeak condemnation on social media.
A dozen years ago a photograph in a schoolbook prompted a conversation between myself and my daughter.
“Look at this!” she said. It was not often that school textbooks evoked such excitement.
“What is it?”
“It’s from a conference held in 1927 – look who is in the picture. There’s Schroedinger and there’s Neils Bohr and there’s Max Planck and who else would be at the front – Einstein”.
The solitary woman in the front row is the brilliant Madame Curie.
“What were they doing? Why the photograph?”
“It was the Solvay Conference in 1927. Look at it – the most brilliant people in the world gathered together in one place. Do you know, Einstein and Bohr once had a debate and every time they met after that, instead of saying ‘how are you?’ and things like that they just carried on the debate from where they left off the previous time.”
The photograph had recorded what must have been one of the most extraordinary moments in the history of humanity. Geniuses by the dozen. To have been present would have left an indelible mark on the memories of mere mortals.
“Can you imagine what it would have been like?” my daughter said. “It would have been like getting all the greatest rock musicians in the world into one band and put them on the stage together.”
Indeed, and the egos of the geniuses would have been considerably smaller. I have visited Schroedinger’s grave in the Austrian mountain village of Alpbach. The grave is modest and unassuming, almost anonymous, tucked against the wall of a small village churchyard.
Solvay represents the reality from which the world seems to have departed. Anti-intellectualism now reigns; even had we an Einstein, he might not get a hearing among people who prefer online conspiracies and the opinions of influencers to empirical research and peer-reviewed publications.
The gulf between the world inhabited by those who stand in the tradition of Einstein, and the world imagined by many people seems to be widening and it is hard to know how the gap will be closed.
Perhaps it was the worldwide instability that followed the Great War that made the possible the intellectual ferment of Solvay. Perhaps the present times will bring forth another generation of geniuses who will be recalled in a century’s time.