These were the words Albert Einstein used to describe the events of 1905, the most productive year of his life. At age 26, he published five papers that had a lasting influence on physics and twentieth century thought.
Last week I read John Rigden’s Einstein 1905: The Standard of Greatness. It’s a history and explanation of Einstein’s 1905 papers. I found Rigden’s descriptions of the five papers to be just detailed enough for me to understand them intuitively as a technically trained non-physicist.
In this short and accessible book, Rigden gives us a great description of Einstein’s work and life. He makes a strong case that Einstein is one of the most brilliant scientists in history. But as a lifelong student and hopeful parent, I find the most interesting parts of the story to be the characteristics of Einstein’s life that enabled him to do so much.
Working in a quiet patent office, Albert Einstein was isolated from the leading edge of physics research. This left him unaware of the latest advances and unbiased by prevailing opinions. He had no advisor or committee to guide him to the right problems to study and no close peers to draw him into long exploratory discussions. He was a pure theoretician, working from existing experimental results and relying on others to design and conduct experiments to demonstrate his theory.
Reading Rigden’s description, one wonders: did Einstein succeed in spite of his isolation or because of it?
Late in his life, Einstein wrote this about work and freedom:
For everything that is really great and inspiring is created by the individual who can labor in freedom. Albert Einstein, Out of My Later Years, 1950.
I think that the freedom of Einstein’s isolation was a key to his success. Life presents us with tremendous challenges; humanity has responded by learning to work together in families, churches, corporations, and governments. Our groups make us strong. A group can provide comfort and security; its members are protected from failure by the resources and shared efforts of their fellows. But sometimes, to move those groups forward, someone has to withdraw and, with courage or craziness, pursue his or her own ideas. Often that individual will fail, but Albert Einstein showed that such pursuits can also bring great insight and progress.
It’s hard to guess how many potential Einsteins have ventured out alone to work on their own projects and ultimately failed. Without guidance and direction, many flounder. But it’s equally valid to wonder how many potential Einsteins lose their brilliance to committee meetings, corporate or university politics, and the advice of experts whose expertise has drifted out of date.
Rigden’s book also shows Einstein’s weakness. Although he had great confidence in his intuition, he at times missed details. On one occasion, experimenters found results that contradicted Einstein’s predictions. Unable to resolve the problem, Einstein asked a friend to examine his work and find the mistake. Rigden doesn’t describe the mistake, but my guess is that it was a simple algebraic error; once it was corrected, Einstein’s predictions matched the results closely.
Quantum mechanics was a much harder problem for Einstein. Because he couldn’t reconcile the new theory with his intuition, Einstein rejected it and followed other lines of research later in his career, with much less productivity than in his early years. Ironically, his breakthroughs of 1905 were remarkable because they were so counter to the intuition of established physicists of the time.
So in addition to isolation, I believe that a second key element of Einstein’s early success was his willingness to question the most basic assumptions. Centuries earlier, another influential thinker wrote:
In order to seek truth it is necessary once in the course of our life to doubt as far as possible all things. Rene Descartes (1596-1650)
As with isolation, the willingness to ask questions comes with risks. But both were key elements of Einstein’s contributions and as they receded in his life, Einstein’s productivity did as well.
Later in his life, Albert Einstein traveled, spoke, and wrote extensively. He became known for his depth of thought, wisdom, and modesty. It is no disrespect to his brilliance to say that it lies in each of us as well. And if we hope to see others like him in the future, let’s encourage more to take the path that brought him to us.
For another description of Einstein’s 1905, read Scott LaFee’s article in the San Diego Union Tribune.