What Made Einstein Special

Einstein was such an impactful theorist because of his ability to continuously generate new ideas.

The early life of Albert Einstein had its ups and downs.

He struggled in school as a kid, couldn’t get anyone to take him seriously about some of his earlier ideas, and had trouble getting a professorship because of his monotone lecture style and seemingly lack of passion for physics.

But as we all know, it worked out alright for young Albert. However contrary to popular belief, his genius isn’t the reason he became as successful as he was. He was smart, sure, but there are a lot of smart people in the world.

Einstein was such an impactful theorist because of his ability to continuously generate new ideas.

Paul Graham riffed on this in one of his recent essays titled, “Beyond Smart,” and it just so happened that I was reading Einstein’s biography by Walter Isaacson at the same time this essay came out, so the concept stuck immediately. I had a brief “light bulb moment” as I was reading Graham’s words.

Graham’s thesis is that being intelligent isn’t special. Again, there are a lot of smart and intelligent people in every field of study. What matters is one’s ability to create or discover new ideas. He writes:

“Imagine you had a choice between being really smart but discovering nothing new, and being less smart but discovering lots of new ideas. Surely you'd take the latter. I would. The choice makes me uncomfortable, but when you see the two options laid out explicitly like that, it's obvious which is better.”

–Paul Graham, “Beyond Smart”

There are multiple reasons why intelligence ends up being the thing that most people think is important. Although I have some interesting thoughts about that, I’m not going to get into that here. Not yet, at least.

Instead, I want to turn to the life of Einstein and reflect on what he did that made it possible for him to constantly generate new ideas.

How Einstein Generated New Ideas

1.) He wasn’t afraid to go against long-held beliefs and prove them wrong.

At the start of this article, I mentioned Einstein had difficulty at school. Although the common story is painted as a motivational mirage like, “Einstein failed at school and he became successful and therefore you can achieve anything,” Einstein was also just rebellious. He didn’t like the strict, one-way road to learning something and thought it should be taught differently. (Imagine what he would say about today’s education.)

Though that rebellious nature got him in trouble as a youngin’, it proved to pay off later in life.

During the time of Einstein’s rise, “the ether” as a force that carried electromagnetic waves was believed to exist. Though the ether was “invisible, weightless, undetectable chemically or physically, and literally permeating all matter and space,” (source) many physicists believed it to be real because it was the only thing that made sense for light waves to travel on.

Einstein seriously doubted anything that couldn’t be observed, a trait he picked up from reading David Hume and Ernst Mach, so naturally, he doubted the existence of the ether, though the idea had been around for a hundred years or so (In the context of light waves. It was used to describe gravity before Galileo’s and Newton’s discoveries, but a lot less people believed in it for that.)

Until then, people attributed the movement and behavior of light to this ether, which helped answer questions about how light travels. But since many experiments that were conducted to prove the ether existed failed, Einstein started from the premise that there is no ether.

This allowed him to start fresh and imagine what the true behavior of light would be without ether. After that, he was able to form his postulates for the speed of light which lead to his creation of the theory of relativity.

2.) He meditated on ideas for decades (and wasn’t afraid to not know the answer to something)

Einstein was 16 when he started his journey down the road to the theory of relativity. It began with a thought experiment about what it would be like to ride at the speed of light next to a light beam, which produced a unique paradox:

“If I pursue a beam of light with the velocity c (velocity of light in a vacuum), I should observe such a beam of light as an electromagnetic field at rest though spatially oscillating. There seems to be no such thing, however, neither on the basis of experience nor according to Maxwell's equations (Maxwell’s equations predicted there was a fixed speed of light, independent of the velocity of the observer.)

From the very beginning it appeared to me intuitively clear that, judged from the standpoint of such an observer, everything would have to happen according to the same laws as for an observer who, relative to the earth, was at rest. For how should the first observer know or be able to determine, that he is in a state of fast uniform motion? One sees in this paradox the germ of the special relativity theory is already contained."

Quite a paradox indeed, but he didn’t let that stop him. He didn’t give up after one year, five years, or even seven years. He decided to continue ruminating on this unique paradox, reading journals and talking to professors until he figured out his answer.

Though this shows his general tenacity for solving a problem, it also illustrates his comfortability with not knowing the answer to something.

Some people don’t ponder big ideas for fear that it makes them look less intelligent than their peers, but in reality it’s quite the contrary. Give me someone who is trying to understand the theory of relativity over those too scared to try any day. Intelligent people aren’t afraid to not know the answer.

3.) He allowed conversation and life to intertwine with his study

By May 1905, Einstein had two postulates–two basic assumptions of general principal. The first was the principle of relativity, which stated that the fundamental laws of physics are the same for all observers: those “at rest” on earth and those moving in a train or on a plane.

His second postulate was that the velocity of light was the same, no matter the motion of its source. For example, if someone is on a moving train and shoots a laser in the direction the train is moving, it will reach a target in the same amount of time it takes for someone’s laser standing on the tracks to reach that target. The laser’s velocity on the train vt, would not equal the speed of the train s, plus the speed of light l. Both lasers would be traveling at the same velocity.

vt ≠ s + l 

This was a puzzling dilemma to him because he couldn’t wrap his head around the fact that an observer running towards the train, an observer running away from the train, and an observer at rest on the side of the tracks would all see the laser coming from the train at the same velocity.

After ten years of thought experiments, conversations, and papers, he was once again at a cross-roads, almost ready to give up. But then he went for a walk.

On a beautiful day in the city, Einstein visited a friend whom helped him get a job at the Swiss Patent Office. As they were chatting, Einstein brought up the dilemma he faced and said he was going to give it up.

But as they talked about the issue more, the dam finally broke and Einstein understood the key to the problem. The next time he saw his friend, “He skipped any greeting and immediately declared, ‘Thank you. I’ve completely solved the problem.’”1 It had only been five weeks since they last spoke.

Often when I’m pondering ideas, I tend to become even more of a turtle than I already am. Thinking, writing, and ideating in my head and my room constantly until I can solve the problem or genuinely give up. What Einstein did, not just in the last few moments of his breakthrough theory but during the entire journey since he started at 16, was continue living life. He graduated college, he got married, he got a job, and he even had a baby!

He viewed life and conversation not as a distraction from his ideas, but something that made his ideas better, at least for the time.

Understand: An idea that has been around for a while is more likely to be true than a new idea (The Lindy Effect), but that doesn’t mean all long held ideas are inherently true. Don’t be afraid to go against the grain to previously held notions. But choose wisely. Don’t go around trying to disprove factual information.

Sometimes, answers to problems don’t reveal themselves right away. If you’re struggling with a thought, idea, or experiment for a long time and have a passion for it, don’t give up. Continue inching away at its resolution until the time comes.

Though it’s important to be passionate about work and excited about the ideas and problems we think about, don’t let those ideas overtake your entire existence. Keep close relationships, spend time doing what you love, and don’t be afraid to converse with others about your problem– they may end up helping you solve it.

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