The more I read about the lives of those who have impacted our world today, the more obvious it is that one characteristic drives those people: Curiosity. Curiosity, in the form of questioning the mundane things. The things that most people simply assume work because "that's just what happens", is one of the defining attributes of the men and women who squeezed centuries of ideas and inventions into just one short life.
This fact became even more evident as my heart and mind were pulled in all directions reading Walter Isaacson's account of Albert Einstein in his biography, Einstein: His Life and Universe. Though this thick biography contained 500+ pages filled with letters, his family life, and his ground-breaking theories (which I plan to write about in the coming months), I most enjoyed the random yet intentional reflections on Einstein's life as a whole, both from Isaacson and included as direct quotes of the white-haired man himself. Beneath the thought experiments, complicated math equations, and political motivations, was a deep sense of curiosity to understand the rules that govern the universe and what that meant for us lowly beings whom inhabit one of the planets within it.
Though there is much to study regarding the scientific breakthroughs that Einstein contributed, this essay is devoted to appreciating his general curiosity of life, how he used that to create new theories, and the deep humility Einstein possessed regarding this knowledge. An essay at a later date will be dedicated to exploring his scientific breakthroughs and I've written previously about the habits that allowed Einstein to develop so many ideas over his lifetime.
Isaacson explores the innate curiosity of Einstein throughout the book, though this paragraph is a good description of what he believed:
Throughout his life, Einstein never lost his sense of wonder at the magic of nature's phenomena. He retained the ability to hold two thoughts in his mind simultaneously, to be puzzled when they conflicted, and to marvel when he could smell an underlying unity. 'People like you and me never grow old,' he wrote an old friend, 'We never cease to stand like curious children before the great mystery into which we were born.'
Einstein, besides being a renowned scientist, was a philosopher of life, and that is seen most evidently in his "ability to hold two thoughts in his mind simultaneously." I have much appreciation for deep thinkers and even more so for those who don't care one bit about their opinion, they simply want to understand things better. The habit of coming up with two opposing theories and trying to work them out together was a routine pattern in Einstein's work.
As he was thinking through his Special Theory of Relativity, there were two main postulates that seemed to contradict each other. They were The Principle of Relativity and what he deemed "The Light Postulate."
The principle of relativity stated that the fundamental laws of physics are the same for all observers. So if Person X is moving and Person Y is at rest, the laws of physics should be the exact same. There is no experiment that could determine who was "at rest" and who was moving.
The light postulate explained that the velocity of light was constant, independent of the movement from the emitting body. For example, if a train was moving at 60mph, light from the trains headlight would move at a constant that is the speed of light, which is 186,000 miles per second. It would not be moving 60mph + 186,000 miles per second.
A Quick Note
Einstein didn't immediately assume light was independent of its source. He did have a postulate called 'the light emission theory' which treated light as if it was shot from its source like a gun. So a light on a train would shoot out at 186,000 miles per second plus the speed of the train. However, as he explored this idea further, it seemed to contradict Maxwell's equations. Eventually, he gave up on the light emission theory and assumed that light must travel at a constant speed, regardless of the motion of the emitting body.
But with these two postualtes right next to eachother, there was a glaring conflict. I'll illustrate that conflict with the following thought experiment:
Imagine someone standing on the side of a railroad track. We'll call them person A. Now imagine another person, but they are on a train moving East at 2,000 miles per second. We'll call them person B.
If a light beam is shot along the railroad track also moving East, it would zip by person A at 186,000 miles per second. All good here.
But person B, traveling away from the beam would see it zip past them at 184,000 miles per second. 186,000 (speed the beam is moving) - 2,000 (speed they are already moving in the same direction) = 184,000. The velocity of the light wave propagating comes out smaller for Person B, but that comes into conflict with the principle of relativity because the principle of relativity states that there is no way to determine who is "moving" and who is "at rest", but we just did. See the problem here? (This is similar to a thought experiment Einstein used.)
Person B's speed relative to the train would change depending on if they were racing towards the train or away from it, but their speed relative to the other train's headlight (which emitted the beam) wasn't changing. So the beam should zip by them with the exact same speed no matter which direction they're moving, but that's not what happened in our thought experiment. That was the conflict Einstein was trying to reconcile.
This made the two postulates, "seemingly incompatible," Einstein thought. The speed of light should be the same, no matter the motion of person B and it should be equal to what person A sees. This was defeating to Einstein.
He's quoted saying, "In view of this dilemma, there appears to be nothing else to do than to abandon the light postulate or the principle of relativity." But then he took a look at another variable: time.
And this is where his infamous theory comes together. By analyzing time, he determined that two events that appear to be simultaneous to one observer isn't simultaneous to another.
He now settled the conflict. But the only way to get there was to hold two seemingly opposing ideas in his head at once without having an identity crisis or nervous breakdown. This would be difficult to do today in a world where what you think is (wrongly) who you are.
Einstien wrestled with that conflict for a long time, but never gave up. Though things were seemingly incompatible, he worked two conflicting ideas out in his head at once to discover a ground breaking answer. And it all started with his innate curiosity.
In fact, what Einstein credited the most for his vast accomplishments was his curiosity, stating, "I have no special talents, I am only passionately curious." Isaacson went on to explain:
Curiosity, in Einstein's case, came not just from a desire to question the mysterious. More important, it came from a childlike sense of marvel that propelled him to question the familiar, those concepts that, as he once said, 'the ordinary adult never bothers his head about.'
Questioning the familiar concepts that others deem too mundane to give brain space to allowed Einstein to explain the quantum realm and the universe–the smallest things in the world and the biggest things in the world–all in one lifetime.
Did Einstein believe in God?
This was a popular question to ask Einstein, and like any great scientist, he never gave a simple "yes" or "no" answer–despite many insisting on one.
To be clear, he was not an atheist. He writes:
I'm not an atheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. We are in a position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must've written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books and doesn't know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws.
When asked whether he was a religious man, he would reply asking what they meant by religious:
The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. 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. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I am a devoutly religious man.
He goes on:
My religiosity consists of a humble admiration of the infinitely superior spirit that reveals itself in the little that we can comprehend about the knowable world. That deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God.
When someone made a more direct comment about the war between science and religion, he was genuinely confused how there could even be such a thing:
Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe–a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble. In this way, the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is indeed quite different from the religiosity of someone more naïve.
That's about as clear as an answer he gave for the existence of God. In short, he believes in a God or higher being that ruled the universe because there was too much simplicity in the laws that governed it to just happen. But, he did not believe in a personal God that could intervene on someone's behalf, as he made quite clear in this answer to whether or not he believes in free will:
No. I am a determinist. Everything is determined, the beginning as well as the end, by forces over which we have no control...– We all dance to a mysterious tune, intoned in the distance by an invisible player.
Most people beg God to show them a miracle to prove that He exists. But to Einstein, the absence of miracles is what truly reveals a divine presence. The fact that the universe is predictable, follows laws, and doesn't do whatever it wants (some people's definition of miracle), is worthy of awe in and of itself.
His wonder for the world and humility of knowledge made him personable
Einstein's knowledge about the world and his pure genius made him impactful, but that's not what made him memorable. His childlike wonder for the world caused a deep humility in him that gave him an attitude of "I do not matter in this world, I'm merely a man." And that's what made him memorable.
President Eisenhower himself remarked after his death:
No other man contributed so much to the vast expansion of the 20th century knowledge. Yet no other man was more modest in the possession of the power that is knowledge, more sure than power without wisdom is deadly.
Power without wisdom is deadly.
Isaacson explains Einstein's humility in another way, stating:
The world has had a lot of geniuses. What made Einstein special was that his mind and soul were tempered by his humility - the belief that no one had the right to impose ideas and beliefs on others.
What fueled that deep humility was his passionate curiosity–the trait I admire most about him.
After his death, The New York Times wrote:
Man stands on this diminutive earth, gazes at the myriad of stars and upon billowing ocean and tossing trees–and wonders. What does it all mean? How did it come about? The most thoughtful wonderer who appeared among us in three centuries has passed on in the person of Albert Einstein.
The most thoughtful wonderer–an attribute I hope to leave behind when I pass on.
Isaacson ends the book with the most thoughtful passage. I get chills reading it each time and even writing it now:
He [Einstein] was a loner with an intimate bond to humanity, a rebel who was suffused with reverence. And thus it was that an imaginative, impertinent, patent clerk became the mind reader of the creator of the cosmos, the locksmith of the mysteries of the atom and the universe.
The above image was a picture of his desk, captured by photographer, Ralph Morris, a few days before he died. The messiness was a direct insight to how his brain worked. It has become an iconic image of the life of Einstein. In fact, he worked all the way up until his last breath. As he went to sleep for the last time, he scribbled one last math equation on a napkin before he took his final breath.
I wonder now, who is the Einstein living amongst us?