Article in Science / Physics
Albert Einstein remains the archetypal genius. His most brilliant insights are generally considered to be his sole creation, conjured in a private world of imagination. But like all of us, he was surrounded by family, neighbors and colleagues who helped shape his world.
 
 
 

March 14th is the 130th anniversary of Albert Einstein's birthday and is celebrated on the official public opening of BestThinking.

Is there such a thing as a solitary genius?

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Long after his death, Albert Einstein remains the archetypal genius. His most brilliant insights are generally considered to be his sole creation, conjured in a private world of imagination. But like all of us, he was surrounded by family, neighbors and colleagues who helped shape his world and thinking. Is his legacy theirs as well?

The Sounding Board

When Einstein was 17, he met Michelangelo (Michele) Besso, a future lifelong friend. While they shared a love of music (both men played the violin) and the most current thinking in mathematics, they otherwise had a typical friendship. Eventually, Besso joined Einstein at the Berne patent office where he was employed. In the evenings after work, the two regularly enjoyed strolling through town; during this time, they would sometimes discuss Einstein’s increasingly complex notions about physics.

At this point in his life, Einstein considered foregoing a career in science since his ideas had been ignored by the luminaries at the universities of Europe. He and Besso helped form a “thinking society” (jokingly named the “Olympia Academy”) that met to discuss the latest ideas in science and philosophy. These informal conversations expanded young Einstein’s thinking and exposed him to the work of others, like Ernst Mach, who would later become key influences in his theory.

On one occasion, Einstein came prepared with particular questions stemming from one of his dreams. Though he received no satisfying answers from Besso, he announced the next morning, “Thank you. I’ve completely solved the problem.” This event preceded the first publication of his special theory of relativity by five weeks. Einstein later recalled that while his collaborator had no special knowledge of physics, he (Einstein) “could not have found a better sounding board for his ideas in all of Europe.”

The Power Behind the Throne?

In the 2003 PBS documentary “Einstein’s Wife,” the filmmaker suggests that Mileva Marić may have contributed the mathematical calculations which support some of Einstein’s central theories. In some ways, she is the most problematic collaborator in Einstein’s story, and a spirited debate <1> continues to this day about her role.

The implications of this debate are huge, but the evidence is thin. Einstein never credited her as a collaborator, but her champions cite several indications which suggest otherwise. Specifically, Einstein wrote her a letter about his enthusiasm that “our work” was being celebrated. Additionally, he shared his Nobel prize money with her. Furthermore, a notable Soviet scientist claimed to have seen an early draft of a work which listed Marić as a co-author.

The real question is why do we have such a hard time accepting that Einstein could have developed his ideas in partnership? If Einstein worked alone, or if the ideas were developed collaboratively, does it make a difference? Should it make a difference?

Peer Collaboration (Allies and Rivals)

Satyendra Nath Bose had a brief collaboration with Einstein. His support helped Bose’s ideas about statistics gain acceptance in academia. This mutually beneficial work was not a “true collaboration” in the normal way that two scientists would work together to flesh out ideas, but it was certainly critical for Bose and his career.

Another notable collaboration with a scientific peer involved Niels Bohr, another giant of physics. Their best work together was not a partnership, but rather a collegial disagreement over the orthodox “Copenhagen interpretation” of quantum physics. The two engaged in a series of slow-motion public debates. This clash of ideas played out in a ritual of questions and considered responses. At stake was the way Einstein’s most important theories and discoveries would evolve into new knowledge. The science involved is beyond the scope of this article, but it is generally acknowledged that the spirited, respectful debate tempered the thinking of both parties.

Simple Friendship

In 1939, Albert Einstein once again enjoyed the company of a friend who happened to play the violin. David Rothman owned Rothman’s Department Store on Long Island, where Einstein was vacationing for the summer. By this time in Einstein’s career, he was coping with a level of celebrity that he found tedious in daily life. He was consequently pleased when Rothman treated him like any other customer. Discovering their shared passion for the violin, they quickly became friends.

According to Rothman’s grandson Chuck, Einstein and Rothman spent “a good deal of time that summer” engaged in music and conversation. Despite the high-school educated Rothman’s general interest in science and Einstein’s role as an educator, the two mainly related to one another on a very human, day-to-day level.

Fellow Travelers

Evidence is spotty that relationships like these had a direct impact on the key ideas in Einstein’s theories, but it is undeniable that the conversations Einstein had with his fellow thinkers directly contributed to his own thinking. Based on statements by Einstein, it is reasonable to assert that he valued a certain kind of conversation as an end in itself and as a means to discovery. He explains:

“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed.”

Were these people mere bit players in the life of a great man? Or meaningful collaborators with a true genius of the twentieth century?

Albert Einstein also spent fifteen years in a friendship association. Kurt Gödel was a constant companion for evening constitutionals irrespective of whether this friendship resulted in any collaboration, having what Friedrich Nietzsche called a midwife for one's thoughts is an incalculable benefit. In the last eighteen months of his life, Einstein provided Immanuel Veliskovsky with invaluable criticism, even if they never came to complete agreement via their dialectics. Freeman Dyson was also a member of their circle, and Bertrand Russel even dropped in at least once that the others could remember. cf. Velikovsky, and Shanker, S.G. Ed. 1988 Gödel's Theorem in Focus Routledge London

Links

1
PBS Ombudsman Statement on Documentary about Mileva Maric
http://www.pbs.org/ombudsman/2006/12/einsteins_wife_the_relative_motion_of_facts.html
 

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Director of Client-Side Development at BestThinking. I'm a stubborn generalist, a proud amateur, jack of all trades and master of a couple.

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