Einstein’s unfinished thought experiment

Mark Anderson

Mark Anderson

As you know, I am fascinated by many aspects of Albert Einstein, and one of them is his habit of doing thought experiments. We don’t do those enough!

In Einstein’s case, he mused (picture him day dreaming) about things such as elevators falling through space and painters inside of them, about two-dimensional beetles crawling around three-dimensional wires, and so on.

But his most famous thought experiment has always bothered me. So I was delighted that Mark Anderson, a physicist who writes the Strategic News Service, which offers trend-spotting analysis, echoes my frustration in a recent newsletter. Here he goes:

The most famous scientific anecdote of all time remains half-done, unfinished, although countless authors have told the story of Albert Einstein as though it makes sense. Here is how the “thought experiment” goes: when he was 16 or so, Einstein decided that he needed to travel alongside light to understand its nature. (Drum roll.) In this way, he came to understand Special Relativity, a bit later in life. Wow.

There’s only one problem with this apocryphal story: Special (and General) Relativity talk about time and space. They don’t say a word about light, except as it responds to gravitational force.

So, none of us knows what Einstein saw (or did not see) of the light itself, as he (illegally) screamed along at the speed of light, looking sideways…

Well, I have been doing this thought experiment for a while now, without success. (That is not surprising since I opted out of physics as soon as I could in high school.) Here, by the way, is a cool illustration of it.

It always seemed to me that if I were looking sideways at a wave-like quantum of light going at the same speed, it should not even “exist”. Mark seems to think the same thing:

Waves, at their deepest origins, are relative. If you stand at the shore, in they come. But if you fly along with one, like a seagull – say, at the crest of a traveling wave – there is no motion at all; there is no wave.

Having said that, I remind myself, through the haze of my confusion about such matters, that Einstein’s Relativity ended up being about time as much as space.

So perhaps what happens to a light-beam rider is that time … stops. Which is, ironically, exactly what happened when I opened my email inbox this morning.

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Einstein’s cosmopolitanism

Yet another citizenship

Yet another citizenship

So, as I mentioned, I am currently refining the characters in my book as I write the second draft. One of the characters is Albert Einstein, one of my idols. I’ve mentioned how I admire his love of simplicity, his ability to wonder and be amazed, his irreverence and impudence. Here is another thing that I like about him (and that I happen to empathize with): his quintessential cosmopolitanism.

History’s first cosmopolitan ever, you recall, was Diogenes, the man who lived in a barrel and who, when asked where he was from, said that

I am a citizen of the world (cosmopolites in Greek).

Well, consider Einstein, who was:

  • Born German
  • Became Swiss, dropped German nationality
  • Became Austro-Hungarian (to get job in Prague)
  • Became German again (to get job/live with lover in Berlin)
  • Became American
  • was asked to be president of Israel

That’s six or so changes or “elaborations” on his nationality. He treated passports the way I treat them: as documents to be kept, discarded or renewed depending on either convenience or morality (eg, when he dropped German citizenship when the Nazis rose to power).

Einstein went a step further and supported a “world government.” I consider that naive but that is neither here nor there. The point is that the great man always saw

  • our great overarching humanity as well as
  • our colorful individuality,

and did not get distracted by the various forms of tribalist or nationalistic perversion/delusion.

Others might accuse me of not being “patriotic” about any particular passport-issuing entity. I say to them: I’m feeling just as powerful a connection to other people as you do, just one level above (humanity) or one level below (individuality) the one that you happen to be interested in.

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In praise of wonderment

Amazing, isn't it?

Amazing, isn't it?

Cheri’s comment about my use of the word wonderment made me … wonder. And so, a brief paean.

Einstein (on page 387 of this biography), once said:

The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle.

I’ve talked before about Einstein’s love of simplicity and his non-conformity as keys to his astonishing creativity. But I should have started with his famously child-like ability to wonder.

Wonderment is the origin of every creative act. The natural flow of Hmms leads to questions and inquiries that are usually never quite answered but become signposts on a great journey, a great story.

People sometimes ask journalists how we get our ideas for stories and I’ve never had a good answer. There is no shortcut, no ten-steps process, no secret vault. Instead, it always starts with simple–and yes, child-like–curiosity and wonderment.

An ability to wonder is of course also what the reader/listener/viewer of a story needs. If you don’t find your own life and its ups and downs somewhat mysterious, you probably won’t enjoy my book when it comes out.

So here’s to wonderment, and its official inclusion in our thread on story-telling. Every good story begins and ends with it.

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Great, if not greatest, thinker: Nietzsche

I vote on values

I vote on values

In this, the fourth, post in The Hannibal Blog‘s search to find the world’s greatest thinker ever, let’s examine another criterion: In order to be the greatest, does the thinker have to be the most expansive–ie, largest–in scope?

My short answer is No, but, as with the previous criterion, there is a catch.

The answer is mostly No because the great is the enemy of the good. Intellectual overstretch is a problem, and most of the great thinkers in history were great precisely because they chose one well-defined are of human interest for their contribution.

The converse is also true. As you will by now have guessed, I am a fan of Einstein’s. But Einstein’s light began dimming at the exact point, in mid-career, when he began to look for a theory of everything, a grand unifying theory, an idea that would explain not just something but all things. Up to that point, he had chosen one thing at a time (light, gravity, time, etc) and had done, ahem, rather well.

So let’s begin a short and explicitly incomplete sub-series of posts on truly great thinkers who shed light on one particular area of interest. Consider these the “honorable mentions” in my search. (There will also be a runner-up, and then of course a winner. If you consider this suspenseful, I feel flattered.) I have no doubt that you will let me have it, as always, in the comments. Today:

Friedrich Nietzsche

Area of interest: The origins of “morality”

Why great: Because he exposed so much of bourgeois “values” as the hypocritical piffle that it is. With highly original and ingenious methods (tracing the evolution of words), Nietzsche described the process in which “healthy” and natural values become inverted and perverted in the process of “civilization”. The masses of the downtrodden feel ressentiment at the strong and healthy, and finally stage a slave revolt in which the high is redefined as low, the good as evil, the strong as cruel; and, conversely, the weak as good, the impotent as chaste, the poor as humble et cetera.

Comment: As with all thinkers, you don’t need to believe it all; but keeping Nietzsche in mind is fantastic armor against some of the glib moralistic bilge that assaults us daily.

Brancusi, Einstein, simplicity and beauty

If non-conformity and “impudence” are the first ingredients in the astonishing creativity of a man such as Einstein, as I said here, are there yet other ingredients? Of course. And the most important, in my opinion, is an appreciation of simplicity.

More than most people I know, I yearn for simplicity in my life–on my desk, in my file folders, in my home decoration, in my writing, my sentences and of course my thoughts. Quite probably, that is because there is far too much complexity in all of these.

When I approach a new topic, as I did a years ago when I, who was a technophobe, took over the tech beat at The Economist, I first run it through my complexity/simplicity filter. At that time I came up with this.

If I had to choose a favorite sculptor, it might be Brancusi, who grasped simplicity as well as anybody. It is at heart an uncluttering. In Brancusi’s case, he strips a thing of all unnecessary detail in order to reveal its underlying form.

Simplicity is thus also a form of honesty. Once the underlying form of a thing is revealed, you know whether it has beauty or, in the case of writing, also substance. Some of you may recall my idiosyncratic way of reading, by copying and pasting a long document into my word processor, then deleting all extraneous detail as I go along. In effect, I force simplicity onto, say, a research paper. Often, this is how I realize that the boffin in question was a windbag and had nothing to say, hiding behind verbose complexity. Other times, I realize I have hit a treasure trove.

Back to Einstein. Isaac Newton in his Principia had already said that

Nature is pleased with simplicity.

Einstein extended his hunch, saying that

Nature is the realization of the simplest conceivable mathematical ideas.


I have been guided not be the pressure from behind of experimental facts, but by the attraction in front from mathematical simplicity.

What goes for sculptors, inventors, physicists and other forms of homo sapiens goes especially for writers.

Einstein, non-conformity and creativity

Impudently yours

Impudently yours

What made Einstein so creative?

It was not his brain, which they literally embalmed after his death, says Walter Isaacson in his biography of the great man, which will be in the bibliography of my book. It was his utter disregard of authority, his refusal to conform.

What Einstein recognized in people like Galileo was “the passionate fight against any kind of dogma based on authority.” Another time, he wrote a friend  that “A foolish faith in authority is the worst enemy of truth.”

“Long live impudence!” he liked to say, and practiced what he preached.

But he did so with a wry humility. He ignored conventional wisdom more than he rebelled against it. It bored him.

But the world astonished him as it usually astonishes only children but not adults. He himself attributed this child-like ability to be amazed to his late development. Because he learned about space and time later than other toddlers, he thought about these things more deeply.

Several things spring to mind randomly:

One is that Einstein (and Newton and Galileo …) represents the best and most complete refutation–and indeed indictment–of all rote learning, all Confucian/Asian education, and indeed much of traditional education full stop.

Another thought, more in tune with the theme of my book, is that even Einstein’s mental freshness could not last. Something happened to ensure that he would spend the first thirty years of his career as a rebel and the next thirty as a resister. “To punish me for my contempt for authority, fate made me an authority myself,” he joked.

What was this treacherous something? It’ll be in Chapter 8 of my book.