My Perspective

With a Little Help from My Fiends

Although normally self-sufficient, autonomous beings, how often do we find ourselves in a bind and in need of assistance from a trusted friend or parent? Even the most brilliant and famous are not immune from requiring a helping hand now and again.

In his youth, Albert Einstein attended the prestigious Federal Polytechnic School. He rarely went to lectures and consequently had no notes to study in preparation for exams. He desperately turned to his good friend and classmate Marcel Grossmann, who attended every class and took copious notes. Studying together, the two of them ended up earning the best grades in the class. When Einstein graduated, his professors, stung by his absences, refused to recommend him for advancement. Once again, Marcel came to his rescue, talking his father into hiring Albert at the local patent office.

Marcel Grossmann went on to get a doctorate in mathematics with an emphasis in differential geometry and tensor calculus. Having established himself in the world of academia, Marcel used his influence to get Einstein hired as a professor of physics at the Zurich Polytechnic.

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As Einstein began to develop his revolutionary Theory of Relativity, he realized that he did not possess the mathematical proficiency to translate his bold assertion about space and time into mathematical formulas. He was in a bind. Again, he approached Marcel, who told him that he (Marcel) indeed had the precise mathematical training that was needed. Marcel was less sure that any physicist could possibly understand the rigorous calculations that his advanced mathematics required. Despite his reservations, Marcel tutored Albert and, much to his surprise, Einstein caught on splendidly. The fruits of their labor were eventually distilled in their joint paper, “Outline of a Generalized Theory of Relativity and a Theory of Gravitation.”

Charles Darwin was a shy, nervous fellow. Careful, studious and hardworking, he won the undying admiration of his professor and eventual friend, geologist Sir Charles Lyell. Darwin’s labors in the scientific field brought him to the revolutionary conclusion that the properties of a species change over time as species are forced to adapt to their environment. This contradicted the teleological aspects of the Aristotelian worldview, which had been adopted by Thomas Aquinas and subsequently the Catholic Church. The church had long ago adopted Aristotle’s contention that each of us possesses a divinely planted seed that determines our destiny, irrespective of outside forces.

Darwin put off publishing his theory of natural selection for two reasons. First, understanding the ruckus his ideas would create, he wanted to make sure he presented an open and shut case. He tediously collected evidence in support of his theory from diverse fields: animal husbandry, archeology, geology and any other discipline he could think of. Second, he was a sickly man and didn’t want to suffer the slings and arrows of detractors. Since he felt that he was not far from death, wouldn’t it be safer to publish posthumously?

As the saying goes, “The best laid plans of mice and men go awry.” One day, Darwin received a package in the mail from a young man named Alfred Russel Wallace, who was his colleague and casual acquaintance. Wallace was younger but an accomplished scientist nonetheless. The package contained Wallace’s manuscript outlining the very theory Charles Darwin had been working on for years.

Darwin was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. What to do? If he publishes his work now, it looks like intellectual property theft of the crassest variety. If he does nothing, all the years he dedicated to his research would have been wasted. He did what any sound-thinking person would do—he sought out his friend, professor Sir Charles Lyell.

His good friend did not let him down. He came up with a solution. He asked Darwin to write a shortened version of his work. Darwin was then to inform Wallace that he, too, had the same theory and propose that they publish simultaneously. Darwin followed his friend’s advice perfectly. Although initially stunned, Wallace agreed. Pursuant to their agreement, the two published their findings simultaneously in 1858 in the exact same journal. Since Darwin’s version was so much more developed and detailed than Wallace’s, it is no surprise that today we associate Charles Darwin’s name to the theory of adaptive speciation by evolution. Given Darwin’s personality and aversion to conflict, there is no guarantee we would know Darwin’s name today were it not for the intervention of his trusted friend Charles Lyell.

Growing up, my idol was New York Yankees centerfielder Mickey Mantle. Although the “Mick” would end up in baseball’s Hall of Fame, his career had a shaky start. After playing in the Major Leagues for a short time, he faced an existential crisis when he was told he was being sent back to the minors for “seasoning.” When informed of his demotion, the first thing Mickey did was call his best friend, his dad. His dad wasted no time driving up to pick up his son, who was now in the midst of serious self-doubt. With tears in his eyes, the young man told his father, “I guess I don’t have it as a big leaguer, I belong in the minors.” His father was patient but firm, insisting that unless his son was able to get tough and believe in himself, he should “quit baseball.”

Motivated by his father’s words, Mantle played his way back to the big leagues. He credits his dad’s support and tough love with his dramatic resurgence. What Mantle didn’t know at the time was that his father had an advanced stage of cancer. Mickey’s dad died soon after, at the age of 40. Many have suggested that the absence of his dad and best friend had a lot to do with Mantle’s subsequent bouts of depression and alcoholism. But one thing was certain: When Mickey needed him, he was there.

Life can be a struggle. Having a true friend that we can lean on is an indispensable component of a joyous journey. We need to take a moment and appreciate all the wonderful people in our lives who have made life’s road so much smoother. As the song goes, “I get by with a little help from my friends.”

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of or anyone who works for is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer.

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