By Gavin Aung Than
Nov 1, 2016
Albert Einstein was desperate. After graduating from the Zurich Polytechnic with a teaching diploma in 1900 he was having a hard time finding a job as an assistant professor. He sent his resume to the top physics professors of Europe but wasn’t get any responses (wanting to make it easier for them, he began sending applications on reply-paid postcards in the hopes of any reply. Nope, didn’t work). With a child on the way, Einstein survived with the help of his parents and the odd tutoring job. Finally, after nearly two years of jobless despair, a friend managed to hook him up with a job at the Swiss Federal Office for Intellectual Property assessing patents. It wasn’t the academic job he was hoping for, but at this point, Einstein was just happy to have found work.
In that humble job, Einstein would have the seven most creative years of his life. The patent office duties were a breeze for Einstein and he could complete a full day’s work in 2 or 3 hours. That allowed him to work on his own physics ideas for the rest of the day. “Whenever anybody would come by, I would cram my notes into my desk drawer and pretend to work on my office work.” In 1905, the 26 year-old patent clerk and unknown amateur physicist produced the greatest MVP season in science history, publishing four papers that changed the world, including his theory of Special Relativity. It’s now known as Einstein’s ‘Miracle Year’.
Einstein getting the patent office job turned out to be one of science’s most fortunate twists of fate. Instead of working in academia, where far-out thinking was not compatible with climbing the Professorship ladder and where Einstein would have felt pressure to publish safe papers, the patent office job gave Einstein the freedom to play. He could follow whatever flights of fancy he saw fit and listen to whatever his creative intuition was telling him. Einstein, perhaps more than any other renowned scientist, stressed the importance of creativity and imagination in scientific work. “When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come close to the conclusion that the gift of imagination has meant more to me than any talent for absorbing absolute knowledge.”
Most of Einstein’s important discoveries came from what he called Gedankenexperiments, which were visual thought experiments. They were like focused daydreams: “What would it be like riding along a beam of light? What if two lightning bolts struck a moving train simultaneously?” It was in 1907, while still working at the patent office, where Einstein had this one: “If a person falls freely, he will not feel his own weight.” Scientific lore has it that Einstein actually saw a man fall while looking out his office window. The idea led him to a further thought experiment: If the falling man was in an enclosed elevator that had it’s cord cut he would experience weightlessness. But his experience would be no different from a man floating in an enclosed chamber in outer space. Also, if the elevator was stationery on earth, the man would be inside standing normally. But if the chamber in space was pulled upward at the same acceleration as Earth’s gravity, again, there would be no difference felt by the man inside. Therefore there was no difference between the effects of gravity and acceleration. This idea, which Einstein called the Equivalence Principle, led him to his theory of General Relativity in 1915. Later, Einstein would recall the image of the man falling as being the ‘happiest thought of my life’.
It’s important to remember that Einstein was a theoretical physicist, not an experimental one. He never performed an actual experiment. All his theories and ideas were a result of him just thinking about things. He figured out all the complicated mathematics AFTER he had found inspiration from his imagination: “I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”
The source of the quote used in the comic is from a short essay Einstein wrote in 1932 titled My Credo. By then his theory of relativity had made him the most famous scientist in the world and, as a result, he was the subject of constant interviews. Journalists had moved on from their favourite question of asking Einstein to explain relativity and instead moved on to a new favourite: “Do you believe in God?” Tired of answering it, Einstein set out to explain once and for all his religious thoughts and wrote the essay, which you can read in full here.