In 1905, Albert Einstein produced four papers that revolutionized physics — changing science’s and society’s entire view of the universe and our place within it. He proposed that light existed as discrete particles rather than purely as waves (called quantum theory), determined the size of atoms and the impact of atoms and molecules on the motion of microscopic particles on the surface of water (at a time when the existence of these building blocks of nature were in dispute), and modified Newton’s centuries-old view of space and time by proposing them to be variable (relativity). These things scared people! They certainly offended the large majority of scientists.
Oh, he did all of these without a Ph.D., his thesis offering having been rejected, and without a scientific or academic job. Einstein was a third-class examiner at the Swiss patent office in Bern, Switzerland where he lived for a decade after renouncing his German citizenship — he was stateless for four years — because he found the German system and culture of top-down, rote learning repressive and dehumanizing.
But if you think that his lightening burst of activity made him an instant hit, or at least would get him a job, or at least was grasped by everyone as the emergence of a brilliant new scientific mind, the greatest of the century — well, wrong again. His stunning, one-person scientific revolution created hardly a stir. Indeed, there is a chance his work would have been ignored were relativity not picked up by a single individual — the world-renowned German physicist Max Planck. Planck defended relativity as being the most economical explanation of nature, more so than the Newtonian physics of fixed time and space it replaced. (Although even Planck objected to other of Einstein’s outre ideas — like that light actually exists as quanta.)
Einstein got no job offers. When he applied for a low-level academic job by submitting his revolutionary papers, an academic committee almost unanimously rejected him, saying he needed to submit a paper in progress showing that he was doing valuable new thinking! Einstein only became a celebrity when, in 1919, scientific experimentation became capable of measuring how much gravity bends light, exactly as he predicted.
Einstein’s theories were a hard sell. He wasn’t really an empiricist. His papers were largely theoretical, written in expository language, relying on appeals to common sense and imagination. Rather than actual experiments, Einstein resorted to thought experiments in which he imagined various scenarios, often placing himself or a random person in a physical setting under varying conditions and asking what outcome would result and how best to describe it.
We know many of these things about Einstein, but we can’t fully recognize what it says about him and about our own mindsets. People didn’t like Einstein’s approach to life and way of thinking. Einstein was, more than anything, a violent nonconformist, who declared “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” And, although he was not a bully himself, and really had a winning personality (Einstein was a “head turner,” according to Walter Isaacson’s 2007 biography, Einstein: His Life and Universe), he rubbed people in authority very much the wrong way. And this was intentional.
Here is how Issacson described Einstein’s affinity for his first lover and wife: “They were kindred spirits who perceived themselves as aloof scholars and outsiders.” Einstein said about himself and his lover: “We understand each other’s dark souls so well, and also drinking coffee and eating sausages, etcetera.” (That “etcetera” resulted in the birth of a daughter before marriage whom Einstein never saw, and whom history can find no subsequent trace of.)
The cultural meme on Einstein is that he was a slow learner. You see that ad in airports: “As a student, he was no Einstein. Confidence. Pass It On.” This meme is accompanied by an idiotic picture of Einstein sticking out his tongue. EVERY ASPECT OF THIS AD IS INCORRECT. Einstein was a superb physics student, although he was not concerned at the time about math and was weak in some other subjects (notably French). Moreover, Einstein was full of confidence — his work and career were impossible without it. This was because he was completely confident in the fruits of his thinking. It also resulted in some part from his being a good-looking man who scored with women, not someone who played the fool as pictured.
Indeed, Einstein’s unshakable confidence constantly landed him in trouble. Let’s take two examples. Einstein was the only science graduate from the relatively liberal Swiss Polytechnic he attended not to receive a job there. This was because he dissed his physics professor — starting with calling him “Herr Weber” rather than “Herr Professor” — leading to Weber’s conclusion: “You’re a very clever boy, Einstein. An extremely clever boy. But you have one great fault. You’ll never let yourself be told anything.” Einstein also received the lowest possible grade for lab, which he rarely attended, preferring to do his own reading and thinking instead, and not following the prescribed procedures when he did show up.
But Einstein was nothing daunted by his realization that Weber was bad-rapping him for prospective jobs, even as he wrote hundreds of imploring letters looking for work: “I am without money, and only a position of this kind would enable me to continue my studies.” Generally, these received no reply. Einstein’s outlaw self-image was unaffected by these rejections. “Einstein’s impudence and contempt for convention” led him, while an unemployed job supplicant, to engage “in a series of tangles with academic authorities.” Einstein wrote a letter pointing out some errors to a leading authority in physics. “Surprisingly, Drude replied. Not surprisingly, he dismissed Einstein’s objections. Einstein was outraged. ‘It is such manifest proof of the wretchedness of its author that no further comment by me is necessary.'”
Intellectually, Einstein had several drawbacks. Along with his not-quite-kosher, visualization approach to science, Einstein had two other traits that place him outside the mainstream. Rather than limiting his view to the entity under examination, Einstein was the earliest enthusiast for field theory, which examined the impact of the surrounding physical environment and connections on something. And, Einstein was no respecter of academic, scientific boundaries: “He had an urge — indeed a compulsion — to unify concepts from different branches of physics.”
Let’s step back now and draw a psychological profile of the human specimen under observation. I happened to buy my copy of Isaacson’s book in a used bookstore in Las Cruces, New Mexico this weekend, where I travelled with a companion who told me, “Einstein was mentally ill. He suffered from apophenia” (the disease that causes people to extract patterns from outwardly unrelated phenomena). And, as Isaacson observed, “Einstein had no qualms about challenging those in power. In fact, it seemed to infuse him with glee” (emphasis added). Antisocial personality disorder, anyone?
I’m not a mental illness labeller, myself. But there is no question that Einstein would fail as a careerist in the modern scientific, institutional environment, where people don’t do mind experiments, diss their professors and superiors in the field, ignore scientific boundaries, and take glee in pissing people off. It’s just not a winning strategy, and even less so today than it was early in the last century.
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. . . your thoughts, my fellow maverick-minded misfit?
with passion & gratitude — jennifer