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Einstein’s genius September 5, 2008

Posted by keithsawyer in New research.
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5 comments

When I give lectures, whether to the general public or to a business audience, my take-home message is that creativity is always collaborative.  I make a strong claim: that no significant creation ever comes from an isolated, lone genius.  Instead, it always takes multiple contributions over time, and creators always work within collaborative webs.

This is hard for many people to accept, because we’ve all heard so many stories about the isolated lone genius.  So when I’m done with my talk, and ready to accept questions from the audience, I always get one question something like this: “What about (insert famous historical creator here)?  Didn’t he work completely alone?”  Now it’s impossible for me to know every biography of every inventor, but after doing this for many years my audience tends to bring up the same names.  One of the names that comes up frequently is Albert Einstein.  Many people learned that he did his Nobel-prize winning work while working full-time in a customs office.  His crazy hair and casual dress fit pretty well with our stereotype of the lone genius.

So I’m delighted to learn of a new book about Einstein, Einstein’s Mistakes, by Hans C. Ohanian, that makes it very clear that Einstein did not work alone.  Take the formula E=mc squared, which you can find on T-shirts underneath Einstein’s image.  It turns out that Einstein didn’t discover this equation; it was known for years before his 1905 paper.  But no one had worked out the math to prove that the equation was right; that’s what Einstein was trying to do in the paper.  But Einstein’s math skills weren’t so great, and he made several critical mistakes.  It wasn’t until 1911 that another physicist, Max von Laue, developed a full and correct proof.

This wasn’t an isolated story, either, according to Ohanian’s book: pretty much all of Einstein’s publications were incomplete and contained errors.  Other physicists, very few of them with such famous names, put it all together and made sure everything worked.

The point isn’t to tear down Einstein’s reputation; Ohanian still believes he deserves a lot of credit.  He often had the right instincts, even if other people had to come along later to prove he had been right.  But his instincts were often wrong, too–for example, his futile search for a unified field theory over the last decades of his life.

I like the E=mc squared story because it matches perfectly everything we know about how new ideas occur: although we tell ourselves a story of a great genius who sees it all in a blinding flash of insight, in fact the real story is always one of small contributions, over long periods of time, with different people making each small contribution.  Einstein didn’t come up with E=mc squared, and he didn’t even prove it was correct.  He played an important role in a collaborative web of multiple scientists working on the problem, and he deserves credit for that.  But that’s a lot less flashy than the myths we tell about the lone genius.

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