By David Bodanis, David Bodanis taught at Oxford University for many years. He is the author of "E=mc2: A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation" (Walker & Co., 2000). His new book, "Electric Universe," will be published in February.
September 17, 2004
If Einstein hadn't smarted off to his professors while he was in college... he'd have never been "Saddled" with that crappy job... the one that as it turns out was exactly what he needed to be able to think clearly enough (with unfettered concentration) to figure out that time doesn't exist.
Everybody has a good day from time to time, but what happened to Albert Einstein in 1905, when he was just 26 years old, was extraordinary: He wrote five powerful papers in one year -- any one of which would have been worthy of the Nobel Prize, laying the foundation for the modern pharmaceutical industry, quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity. He even came up that year with the beguilingly simple formula -- E=mc2 -- that has done so much to transform our century.
What made it even more extraordinary -- as "Einstein," an exhibition at the Skirball Cultural Center, reveals -- was that up until the start of that year, nobody had any idea he was capable of this. He'd been an average university student in Zurich, Switzerland, and because he had smarted off so much to his teachers he hadn't been allowed into graduate school. The best job he'd been able to wangle was that of patent clerk, third class, under the stern eye of one Herr Haller in the Federal Patent Office in Bern, Switzerland.
It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. He'd received a thorough enough grounding in the basic tools of physics from his schooling, and if he had gone straight to a university job, he wrote later, he probably wouldn't have had the time for the quiet, unpressured reflection needed for his breakthroughs.
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Two beliefs kept Einstein motivated in those years at the patent office. The first was that there were great truths waiting to be discovered. He felt, as he once put it, like a little boy standing in a big, dark room lined with books with titles that were hard to distinguish -- but with enough concentration and humility, a few of the waiting pages could be read.
His second motivating belief was that the universe was simple, and the same for everyone. If I, standing still, view a light beam as moving at a certain rate of speed, I have no right to say that this is the "true" rate, and that what you, running along beside the beam, might measure about its speed is wrong. Rather, there had to be a way to make any two such views be seen as just one aspect of a deeper, common truth. From that reasoning -- and with just a few lines of high school algebra -- much of relativity, as well as the formula E=mc2, could be deduced.
It also helped that he was struggling with these problems at a very propitious time. Stephen Jay Gould has pointed out that the reason it's so hard to hit .400 in major league baseball today is that the whole level of play has been raised. In the 1920s and 1930s there were many weak teams, against which it was easy for top hitters to pump up their averages. Today though, there are fewer consistently weak teams. Batters have a higher standard against which to try to stand out.
Einstein was like one of those old-time batters. Today there are thousands of physicists in the world, but when Einstein was at the patent office there were scarcely any -- perhaps six full-time physicists in Switzerland and at most a few hundred in other major countries. He could take the time he needed for quiet mulling without too much worry that anyone would catch up to him.
To top it all, Einstein, who was born and raised in Germany, had the trait many immigrants share -- because they are, in a sense, outsiders -- of questioning what the society around them insists to be true. Although Einstein's parents were not very religious, he knew he came from a line of very Orthodox Jews who had no knowledge of 19th century science. At university, he learned that the biblical tales those ancestors had believed were false, or at least incomplete when it came to science.
But then when his Zurich teachers told him that what he was learning was the total and complete truth, he didn't believe them. After all, his family had been fooled once by taking too much on trust. He ended up questioning whether, by simple analogy, what his overconfident professors were teaching him could be incomplete as well.
Conclusion? The next Einstein -- whether in physics or literature or software -- may also come from America's immigrant groups. It is those who retain that questioning attitude, that suspicion that what everyone in a new environment is telling them might not really be the full truth after all, who have the ability to ask the right questions.
And that is what made Einstein's 1905 so great.
"E=mc2: A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation" on Kindle