Rethinking the Universe

From the most advanced scientific circles to the cheapest tourist T-shirts, Albert Einstein is commonly regarded as the epitome of genius. But how did he actually arrive at his brilliant new theories and mathematical formulas? Did they just come to him in a sudden flash of inspiration? Or were they pieced together systematically in his mind over a longer period of time? Indeed, were his scientific breakthroughs built on illuminating insights that recombined previously existing ideas? Let’s consider the process through which Einstein reinvented physics.

Just like Archimedes, we find that Einstein would concentrate obsessively—sometimes for many years—on solving a single problem. He would consider the work of his predecessors and peers—from Isaac Newton to James Clerk Maxwell, David Hume, Ernst Mach, Hendrik Lorentz, Henri Poincaré, and Max Planck—either building on or refuting their ideas. He would explore radical new concepts through his famous thought experiments, like riding across the universe on a light beam, or being in an elevator in free fall. But finding the answers to his mind puzzles about space and time was difficult intellectual work, and there were occasions when he ran out of steam. Thankfully, however, Einstein knew how to unwind. For example, he loved sailing, taking long walks around town, playing the violin, and—like Archimedes—relaxing in the bath (sometimes for hours on end). When he came up with his theory of special relativity, and ...

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