Einstein’s Intuition

Famously, Albert Einstein wrote the special theory of relativity while working full-time at the Swiss patent office. Prior to taking that job, Einstein had tried and failed for years to get a job as a professor. In fact, he’d even been turned down for a job as a high school physics teacher.

This tidbit is often shared as a curious anomaly, reinforcing the image of Einstein as an iconoclast who was an underachiever early in his life.

But there’s another version of the story, one in which Einstein never would have achieved what he did but for his anomalous surroundings. Quoting Walter Isaacson’s Einstein, His Life and Universe:

The most important and obvious [source of Einstein’s insight] was his deep understanding and knowledge of theoretical physics. He was also helped by his ability to visualize thought experiments, which been encouraged by his education in Aarau. Also there was his grounding in philosophy: from Hume and Mache he had developed a skepticism about things that could not be observed. And this skepticism was enhanced by his innate rebellious tendency to question authority.

Also part of the mix—and probably reinforcing his ability to both visualize physical situations and to cut to the heart of concepts—was the technological backdrop of his life: helping his uncle Jakob to refine the moving coils and magnets in a generator; working in a patent office that was being flooded with applications for new methods of coordinating clocks; having a boss who encouraged him to apply his skepticism; living near the clock tower and train station and just above the telegraph office in Bern just as Europe was using electrical signals to synchronize clocks within time zones; and having as a sounding board his engineer friend Michele Besso, who worked with him at the patent office.

It seems little coincidence that the formulation of Einstein’s breakthrough theory of special relativity—the theory that stated that the speed of light is constant regardless of the speed of the observer— was grounded in a thought experiment of a person observing a beam of light from a stationary position and from a train traveling at 2,000 mph.

As Einstein himself observed, “A new idea comes suddenly and in a rather intuitive way. But intuition is nothing but the outcome of earlier intellectual experience.”

Intellectual experience, yes. And also how we spend our days, the stimuli we take in, the people around us, the type of thought that our work requires.

Cue: Instagram, Facebook, Candy Crush.

Or ask if this weekend might be the time to create a useless invention or start journaling or finally learn what the blockchain is.

While we cannot predict or fully control our future intuitive breakthroughs, we have the choice to see our days as an ongoing chance to assemble the ingredients of that future intuition.

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