Why No New Einstein?

In the June 2005 issue of Physics Today there is an article by Lee Smolin with the provocative (or evocative) title, Why No ‘New Einstein’? That year marked the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein‘s annus mirabilis (year of wonders), in which the 26-year-old Swiss patent examiner submitted and had published revolutionary papers on the photoelectric effect, Brownian motion, special relativity, and matter-energy equivalence in a prominent German physics journal, Annalen der Physik. These papers were so important that they completely changed the course of physics and led to great opportunities for Einstein to further develop his career as a physicist.

Here are some excerpts from Smolin’s article.

“Many of Einstein’s contemporaries testified that he was not unusually talented mathematically. Instead, what enabled him to make such tremendous advances was a driving need to understand the logic of nature, tied to a breathtaking creativity and a fierce intellectual independence.”

“Perhaps a lesson might be learned from the fact that this one person, who was initially unable to find an academic job, did more to advance physics than most of the rest of us [physicists] put together have since.”

“It follows that new Einsteins are unlikely to be easily characterized in terms of research programs that have been well explored for decades. Instead, a new Einstein will be developing his or her own research program that, by definition, will be one that no senior person works on.”

“Are our universities, institutes, and foundations doing all they can to identify and promote individuals who have the creativity and intellectual independence that characterize those who contribute most to physics? I say that they are not.”

“People with the uncanny ability to ask new questions or recognize unexamined assumptions, or who are able to take ideas from one field and apply them to another, are often at a disadvantage when the goal is to hire the best person in a given well-established area.”

“It is easy to write many papers when you continue to apply well-understood techniques. People who develop their own ideas have to work harder for each result, because they are simultaneously developing new ideas and the techniques to explore them. Hence they often publish fewer papers, and their papers are cited less frequently than those that contribute to something hundreds of people are doing.”

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