This month I read (and listened to the audiobook of) Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson. Here are some “lessons” I drew from it. Before reading this book, I knew very little of the man and process behind the theories. I was pleasantly surprised but also saddened.
What drove much of the curiosity and passion of Einstein’s work is the belief that the universe may be governed by a single law: a theory that unifies all the forces of nature without the messy uncertainty of the mysterious quantum mechanics and its ilk. He hoped for there to be a simple truth underlying all of nature. In a way, it is a hope that all of us share, because part of what makes existence so damn terrifying (in a existential philosophy sense) is how messy it is and how little we understand about it.
More practically, I think, the inclination towards unification can be applied day to day in your own life. The goal of searching for the unifying theory of whatever you do is a fruitful one in the long-term. It’s easy to get bogged down in the details as you specialize further and further in a particular subject or activity. Taking a step back to search for the bigger picture is often the most productive step you can take (even if it is technically a step “backwards”).
Einstein was the ultimate outsider. Many physicists and academics in general prefer to work in rich collaborations. Even when the collaboration is not a direct one, the set of ideas with which scientists work is usually pulled from the pool of consensus. There are many disagreements, but there are also many agreed-upon assumptions. Einstein was able to step beyond the assumptions of the day to explore space and time solely through the power of his mind. It can not be overstated how difficult it is to ignore the agreed-upon belief of you brilliant peers (especially in formal theoretical fields like mathematics and physics).
Einstein worked alone in a literal sense but also in an intellectual sense. He was not burdened by the pressures of his scientific community except for the one-time hurried race (related to general relativity) between him and David Hilbert in November of 1915. This stubbornness/reclusion was a blessing for science at first, but in the eyes of some, a curse later, as he stubbornly resisted the quantum-mechanical description of the world for his whole life. The following is probably my favorite Einstein paper from 1935: Can Quantum-Mechanical Description of Physical Reality Be Considered Complete? In this paper he suggested a simple thought experiment that (in his mind) invalidates the Heisenberg uncertainty principle that puts strict limits on how accurately one can measure the position, velocity, energy, and other properties of a particle:
Imagine that a particle decays into two smaller particles of equal mass and that these two daughter particles fly apart in opposite directions. To conserve momentum, both particles must have identical speeds. If you measure the velocity or position of one particle, you will know the velocity or position of the other—and you will know it without disturbing the second particle in any way. The second particle, in other words, can be precisely measured at all times.
The absurdity of quantum mechanics is overwhelming at every level. It would have been a show-stopping achievement if Einstein peaked behind the curtain of QM to in fact arrive at a theory that unified general relativity with electromagnetism.
Try a lot of things
“Most of my intellectual offspring end up very young in the graveyard of disappointed hopes” – Einstein, 1938.
The variety of ideas and approaches that Einstein entertained in his life is remarkable. Even the final years of his life that did not produce any grand theories was a story of bold exploration.
Obvious advice: Try new approaches to problems that you have failed to solve in the past.
This is advice that everyone knows is true, but most people don’t follow. The better an old dog gets at doing its old trick, the less willing he is to learn a new one.
Inspiration and innovation can come from the strangest places, arrive suddenly, and pass just out of reach if you are not ready. So, be open to the freakiest possibilities.
Escape the emotional “whirlpool” of personal experience
The follow statement of Einstein saddened me. It is a cynical view of the balance between his work and his love life. At the age of 39, he declared (in a speech if I remember from the book) that scientific thought can be an escape from feeling:
“One of the strongest motives that leads men to art and science is escape from everyday life with its painful crudity and hopeless dreariness. Such men make this cosmos and its construction the pivot of their emotional life, in order to find the peace and security which they cannot find in the narrow whirlpool of personal experience.”
It is interesting to think about the genius of Einstein as merely a way to deal with a world he was not emotionally equipped to deal with otherwise.
You can love passionately or marry comfortably
Einstein married twice, first was Mileva Maric at age 24 and then Elsa Lowenthal at age 40. The two women represented very different types of companion that a man can have. Mileva was a talented physicists who worshipped Albert in the way that is perhaps standard for any good love affair between strong minds. But she couldn’t create a simple, peaceful life for him where he could work in isolation. Elsa, on the other hand, had neither ability nor desire to understand Einstein’s work, but instead dedicated herself fully to serving the role of wife and caretaker to Albert, meaning she took care of everything and made sure that he could work when he wanted to work, and would not be disturbed. Their connection was purely of comfort. They slept in separate beds.
The lesson to draw here is a complicated one for me. I too am an academic, and perhaps a difficult one to get along with at times. But at this stage in my life, I will always dive into the passionate love affair without consideration for the consequences. When a beautiful girl looks at me with admiration (even obsession), and I share that feeling, the impossible becomes possible. There is magic in that connection. Escaping the chaos of that for the comfort of a recluse intellectual life seems dull and life-draining, but perhaps I’m still just an ignorant teenager in a 30-year-old man’s body. Maybe I will grow wiser and more cautious one day.
I’ll close this blog post with the picture of the two ladies (first Mileva and then Elsa):