Einstein’s son once asked his father why he was successful. Einstein replied “When a blind beetle crawls over the surface of a curved branch, it doesn’t notice that the track it has covered is indeed curved. I was lucky enough to notice what the beetle didn’t notice.”
Einstein’s modest answer belies his brilliance. But, he acknowledges his luck, the singularity of events in his life that helped him see what the beetle and others never noticed.
Here are events, experiences and quirks of fate that brought the track of the beetle into focus for Einstein:
Einstein had practical and theoretical knowledge of magnetic fields—essential for his understanding of gravitational fields.
Einstein’s father and uncle were entrepreneurs in the new technology of electromagnetic induction based on the work of Faraday. The young Albert Einstein helped in every aspect from design to manufacture to installation, giving him hands-on experience with the spinning wire coils, moving magnets and field theory.
Einstein developed visualization skills to solve problems.
Denied admission to Zurich Polytechnic, he enrolled in a small town high school where he was required to practice visualization. He stated later that his successes depended on his ability to imagine.
The Argovian School in Aarau, Switzerland believed that students should reach their own conclusions through a specific series of steps: observation, following by developing intuitions and concepts and, then, solving the questions through mental visualization. Unlike the Prussian system, there was no memorization and no rote learning. Einstein was taught that “visual understanding is the essential and only true means of teaching how to judge things correctly.”
Einstein entered physics at a moment of radical change—much of which he generated.
It was an era of unrest, questioning and innovation. His contemporaries were innovators like Pablo Picasso, James Joyce, Igor Stravinsky, Sigmund Freud, Arnold Schoenberg and others.
After 200 years of Newtonian physics, many scientists believed that there was nothing new to learn. Max Planck—the progenitor of quantum theory—was told not to study physics because it was a “dead end.”
Einstein developed friends at Zurich Polytechnic who remained sounding boards throughout his life. His first wife was a collaborator often revising his equations.
Einstein argued physics with friends who would become lifelong advisers. His first wife, Mikela Marić, the only woman in the Zurich physics program, sacrificed her own career to support Einstein in his work. Their love letters read like drafts of a physics paper.
Einstein had time and solitude when he needed it.
Upon graduation, Einstein tried and tried to secure a university post in Europe, leaving him deeply frustrated that no one would hire him.
He acknowledged later in life, that being barred from academia was helpful. He had freedom to develop his own ideas without the pressure to publish. He did not have to align himself with a school of thought or conform to a senior researcher’s views. He pursued the issues that he was fascinated by. He had Mileva and his friends as intellectual colleagues.
Einstein challenged accepted wisdom.
In 1905, Einstein published five papers including his special theory of relativity. Henrik Lorentz and Henri Poincaré had already recognized elements of Einstein’s theory, but were unable to cast off 200 years of Newtonian physics. Einstein rebelled against authority, rejecting the accepted notions of absolute time and space. Einstein was a 26 year old patent clerk, without a PhD, who stubbornly contradicted the leading physicists of his day.
Einstein once said “To punish me for my contempt for authority, fate made me an authority myself.”
Luck favored Einstein.
Einstein’s theory was fiercely challenged by scientists across Europe. In 1914, a solar eclipse in the Crimea could prove (or disprove) one of Einstein’s key predictions that gravity bends light.
An expedition to measure the deflection of light during the two minute eclipse arrived in Crimea in July 1914 to prepare for the August 21 eclipse. On August 4, 1914, Germany declared war on Russia. The German scientists were seized by the Russian army. They missed the eclipse. Bad luck?
In fact, the delay bought Einstein time to rework his equations. Einstein’s original math was wrong. A measurement in 1914 would have disproved his math leading to rejection of his theory. Another scientist could have come along to claim credit.
Einstein keenly felt the pressure of competitors.
Competition prodded Einstein, establishing urgency and sharply focusing his mental and physical energy.
He had been working on the general theory of relativity for close to ten years—pursuing dead ends, changing strategies and then finally, in a round the clock marathon of work achieved his goal right on the cusp of his deadline.
In 1915, Einstein promised to deliver four lectures in one month to the leading scientists at the Prussian Academy. Einstein worked alone relying on his superb intuition of the physical universe, spurning mathematics. But, in the depth of his intellectual struggle, he sought help on the mathematical equations.
After warm collegial discussions with Einstein in the fall of 1915, a German mathematician, began working on the equations independently, apparently trying to scoop Einstein. Einstein plunged into a frenetic intensity working feverishly right up until the last lecture on November 25. The scientists presented their equations within days of each other. But, Einstein was triumphant. Physically and mentally drained, “he was beside himself with joyous excitement.”
In 1919, British expeditions measured light deflection in a total solar eclipse in Africa and South America confirming both Einstein’s theory and his revised equation. The press dubbed him a “genius” and turned Einstein into an international celebrity.
What did Einstein have that others did not? Certainly, his constant work and his persistence. He benefited from moments of luck. He was in the right place at the right time. And, he was curious. But, above all, he had a superior intuition for the workings of the universe that he imagined through visualization.