Why Einstein Wasn’t Genius and Newton Wasn’t a Giant

June 14, 2009

Okay, that’s a pretty suggestive title. I don’t mean to say that Einstein and Newton didn’t accomplish amazing work. Or that all of us can be a Newton or an Einstein.

What I do mean to express is that these gentleman (and Nobel Prize winners, Fields Metal recipients, etc.) are not necessarily gods among men.

The first individual that pointed me in this direction (at least, to the point of feeling it necessary to write a post about this) was my graduate student assistant. We were discussing solving a linear first order differential equation (you may recall that perhaps the simplest method for solving such an equation is by using an integrating factor). I said something to the effect of, “How did these guys some up with that stuff?” And the graduate student responded by saying, “Well, actually, if you just think about it for a little while, it makes complete sense.”

Later that same day, I mentioned how impressed I was with Newton that he had developed the calculus. The grad student again responded by saying, “Yeah, actually, it’s not as impressive as what you would think. They (ie mathematicians at the time) knew about derivatives and integrals. I mean, slopes and areas under a curve are kind of intuitive. What Newton managed to do, his great accomplishment, was combining these two concepts through a form of the fundamental theorem of calculus.”

Deflated again. But he has a point. Discoveries do not happen in a vacuum. In fact, they happen a pretty big, complicated network. This is evident from the fact that calculus was developed independently by both Newton and Leibniz. Both men had available to them all the mathematics at the time. And both managed to come up with basically the same idea independently. (Newton gets all the credit, whereas most of the notation we use stems from Leibniz).

Similarly, Einstein didn’t just sit down one day and think really hard about space-time and then come up with his theories of relativity. I’m reading the book Einstein: His Life and Universe right now. As a biography, it traces the genesis of his ideas about relativity. Basically, he completely surrounded himself with the theories of the luminaries of his time: Boltzmann, Mach, Helmholtz, Planck, etc. He read and studied their textbooks and papers studiously. And only THEN, after reading through their works, grappling with their ideas, did he manage to make the next logical step and develop his theories of relativity, quantum mechanics, and brownian motion.

In other words, it wasn’t magic. He wasn’t somehow independently brilliant. If you stripped him away of his education, he would have been a really bright, hard working kid. But he wouldn’t have come up with relativity.

I write all this because it gives me a sort of hope. Because I know that I’m not ‘Einstein brilliant.’ That is, I know that I couldn’t possibly ever stand up to the popular conception of Einstein. But I’m a decently hard worker that shows a decent aptitude for mathematics and physics. If I want to follow in Einstein’s footsteps, that is, the real Einstein, then the next logical step is to start engrossing myself in the works of the masters of this day. That might take a while, because there are notably more masters now then there were in the late 1800s and early 1900s. But still, it is easy enough to pick a speciality and stick to. Read everything there is to read in that speciality. And then start trying to build on it. Not quantum leaps. Baby steps.

I should mention that a decent amount of my thinking on this topic originated from the book The Talent Code and the article Einstein’s Superpowers. Both are exceptionally good reads, both entertaining and informative.

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One Response to “Why Einstein Wasn’t Genius and Newton Wasn’t a Giant”

  1. daveinthewest said

    Go get ’em, Dave!

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