After analyzing “lost” photographs of Einstein’s intact brain from his 1955 autopsy it became irrefutable that every lobe of his brain differed from the human norm. Weighing in at 1,230 grams the brain was not “bigger” but the cortical architecture was exceptional. More important than his gray matter, Einstein’s mind taught us about the inner workings of the Very Small (“quanta”) and the Very Big (“space-time curvature of the universe”). The journey of that mind throughout Einstein’s 76 years may prove instructive today.
Einstein’s mind never ceased to be a “work in progress” that overcame numerous setbacks on its way to scientific immortality.
To wit: The real Baby Einstein did not begin to talk until well after his second birthday. He did not pass his college entrance exam for what is now called Zurich Polytechnic and had to wait a year for admission. He was called a “lazy dog” by his math professor, Hermann Minkowski. In 1900 he graduated fourth out of five students in the program to train teachers in math and physics. The following year he got his girlfriend pregnant and to this day the fate of their daughter, Lieserl, is unknown.
He was refused an assistantship at more than one university and did not get regular employment until 1902 when he became a patent clerk — third class in Bern. He remained at the Swiss Patent Office until 1909, though in his spare time he was writing (without access to a university library) the six brilliant papers that skyrocketed him during his annus mirabilis (Miracle Year) of 1905.
His Nobel Prize (1921 but given in 1922) was awarded not for his theory of general relativity (arguably one of the supreme achievements of the mind of man) but for his work on the photoelectric effect, which was a forerunner of quantum mechanics. Ironically, Einstein vociferously rejected quantum mechanics believing that “God does not play dice.”
So we see that Einstein encountered more than a few bumps in the road but he most certainly made his way to Scientific Valhalla. Can we hope that his mind and brain will teach us how he overcame “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” more than six decades after his death? A few possible lessons:
1. Grow a fourth mid-frontal lobe gyrus. Most human brains have three such gyri (ridges) and Einstein had four. Although we all can grow about 1,400 new hippocampal neurons daily, a whole gyrus (and its “wiring”) is not an option).
2. Exploit your family’s strengths. Einstein’s father and uncle were both mathematically inclined and brought Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetism to life with electric utility start-ups in Munich and Milan. Einstein did not become the engineer his father wanted but the natural sciences were his family’s table talk.
3. Apply what you learn at your job. Being a patent clerk is very different from being a theoretical physicist. Einstein had to judge the merits of patents for synchronizing railway clocks throughout Europe’s growing railway systems. This workaday task led him to think deeply about time and set the stage for his theory of special relativity, which dispelled Isaac Newton’s myth of absolute universal time.
4. Pick the right problem. Measuring the shift (precession) of Mercury’s orbit at 43 arc-seconds per century did not “fit” with Newton’s Law of Gravitation. The time was ripe for a new vision of gravity not as a force but as a field, and the “problem” of Mercury’s orbit was solved by Einstein’s theory of general relativity.
5. Learn to use new tools. Even with a “Miracle Year” under his belt in 1905 Einstein did not know enough math to pull off his theory of general relativity. With a little help from his friends, mostly Marcel Grossman, he learned the arcane mathematics of non-Euclidean geometry and tensor calculus, and the upshot was when general relativity’s spot-on prediction of the bending of starlight made the world agog in 1919.
6. Not everyone benefits from a mentor. At least Einstein didn’t. He avoided indoctrination to the received wisdom of the existing scientific paradigms by not attending graduate school, writing his doctoral thesis while fully employed as a patent clerk outside academe, and not apprenticing himself to senior faculty for a post-doc year. Einstein was free to pursue his own profound thoughts and he thought “outside the box” simply because he was never permitted to go “inside the box.”
7. Embrace your cognitive style. By his own admission, Einstein relied on visual and “muscular” imagery in his thought (Gedanken) experiments. Once he had visualized the equivalence of gravity and acceleration experienced by the occupant of an accelerating box hauled up by a rope in interstellar space, he could then proceed with mathematical formalisms and write the equations. People think in words, images, abstract symbols, or, as archly intoned by Maynard Keynes — “thoughts.” Choose what is best for you.
8. Stay curious. When Einstein was given a compass at age 4 or 5 he felt that “something deeply hidden had to be behind things” to account for the compass’ needle unerringly pointing to magnetic north. His curiosity never wavered and in the fullness of time ushered in his radically different view of the universe. The ability to step back and ask “why?” or “how?” can fuel the sense of wonder that transforms the daily routine into a path of discovery.
9. Persevere. On the day he died, next to his hospital bed were 12 pages of equations that Einstein had written in a further attempt to reconcile quantum theory with gravity — a unified field theory. Einstein struggled throughout the last decades of his life but failed to find this Holy Grail of physics. We’re still looking, and the latest iteration of this theory of everything is string theory, with 11 dimensions (10 spatial and one temporal)! Was there a point to Einstein’s last doomed struggle to wrest an ultimate truth beyond Robert Louis Stevenson’s encouragement that “to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive”? You bet there was: that selfsame dogged determination brought forth the coruscating brilliance of the theory of general relativity after 10 years of unsuccessful attempts from 1905 to 1915.
If you adopt these nine lessons (some fanciful) from the life of a visionary 20th-century theoretical physicist, your personal success is not assured (and Einstein would be the first to tell you so). He was most certainly a genius and possibly the foremost genius of our times, but on a human scale his ability to confront his personal and professional problems will serve well as a North Star 63 years after his death.
Frederick E. Lepore is a professor of neurology and ophthalmology at Rutgers/Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. The Princeton resident is a clinical neuro-ophthalmologist, the author of “Finding Einstein’s Brain” — published in 2018 by Rutgers University Press — and more than 125 scientific articles.
Editor’s note: The op-ed above was originally posted on the career website Ladders on January 13. Visit www.theladders.com.
Albert Einstein’s birthday — March 14 — will be celebrated in Princeton with the annual Pi Day festivities scheduled for Saturday, March 9, and Thursday, March 14. For more information, see box on page 15 or visit www.princetontourcompany.com/activities/pi-day.