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How important was einstein, really?

  1. Jun 26, 2010 #1
    i've heard several teachers talk about ideas being ripe at certain times, and while we often attribute amazing progress to certain individuals, really, the scientific community at large was pretty close to the results. newton/leibniz, for example. one teacher talked about how archimedes was relatively (ha) close to coming up with calculus even.
    so, anyway, my question is, did einstein really give us a whole new world view on his own? were other scientists coming up with some of the same ideas? i've read somewhere, a while ago, so i don't remember specifics, that e=mc2 was around before his work. i've even come across an anti-semetic web page (note: i'm not anti-semetic) that claimed that all of einstein's brilliance was really the result of a genius german (i forget who, i try to stay away from nazi websites).
    it's just that we talk about how brilliant einstein was, and how he alone changed the world of physics. i was just wondering if someone had insight as to how much of a true statement that is. thanks!
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 26, 2010 #2
    I think special relativity may have come about without him in a few more years.

    But the equivalence principle he developed without peers. Try taking the Newtonian Equivalence Principle and getting something different than Newton. You have special relativity and hindsight to build upon, unlike Newton. Tell me how you managed to come up with general relativity. It sounds like a decent intellectual challenge--maybe I should try it...
  4. Jun 26, 2010 #3


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    Even if he only wins the race by a nose, the guy who wins the Indy 500 still gets the big check, big trophy, and babe in a bikini to hand him his after-race drink. The guy who comes in second doesn't get remembered.
  5. Jun 26, 2010 #4
    He was undoubtedly one of the best physicists of his time who made a number of important contributions and breakthroughs.

    But we love to hear the story of the almost overlooked lone genius visionary who, outside the mainstream (a patent clerk no less) makes the lone breakthrough that the rest of the community, the poor, plain, backwards plodders that they were, would never have seen in a million years.

    A lot of science is a community effort, and a lot of scientists came up with some close misses. Lorentz and Poincare together were very close to SR; Minkowski came up with the geometric interpretation; Hilbert discovered the equations of GR round about the same time as Einstein, with what was arguably a nicer derivation - though there is some controversy on this matter! I feel that Poincare and Hilbert don't get the general recognition they deserve.

    None of this should detract from Einstein's achievements.
  6. Jun 26, 2010 #5


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    Someone asked a similar question a month or two ago. I'm too lazy too look for it, but I think there were some good answers and good links in that one. (Not that there's anything wrong with the answers here. They all look good too).
  7. Jun 26, 2010 #6


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    A patent clerk with a PhD in Physics.
  8. Jun 26, 2010 #7
    The philosophers and physicists of the time helped develop his ideas, but at that time they were sending letters to each other instead of having the internet to just hop on. To do what he did back then was extremely hard, but it doesn't mean we are not doing equally important tasks for someone to see something we've missed, in less time most likely. Personally I think there are a lot of problems in Newton and Einsteins work because there is no separation of mind from body.
  9. Jun 26, 2010 #8
    I think Einstein's GR is a rare example of a physicist being more than a decade ahead of his peers. I say this despite the fact that Hilbert derived Einstein's equation at practically the same time. He only did this after understanding what Einstein was trying to do. It took Einstein longer to work it out because, let's face it, even Einstein couldn't match the mathematical brilliance of Hilbert.
  10. Jun 26, 2010 #9


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    From Issacson's Einstein biography:
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  11. Jun 26, 2010 #10


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    Actually, not a patent clerk, but a patent examiner (assistant). It was a technical job, not a clerical job as the cynics like to imply.
  12. Jun 26, 2010 #11
    I vaguely remember reading somewhere that this job was actually very useful in his training. I can't remember if this is a quote from him directly, or more likely was an opinion by an author of one of his biographies. Still, it makes sense that daily study of inventions is good technical training, and good for the mind in general.
  13. Jun 26, 2010 #12
    Being a patent clerk wasn't just incidental to his insights. At that time, there were supposedly many patents being submitted related to synchronizing distant clocks using signals sent between them.

    Apparently each town setting their official town clock by the sun posed problems when (relatively) high speed transportation came along. One could imagine the difficulty with writing up a train schedule for each stop, when the schedule was to be distributed and posted at each stop.
  14. Jun 26, 2010 #13


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    The only other single person whose importance to theoretical physics is comparable to that of Einstein's, is Newton. Of course, that doesn't mean Einstein did what he did all by himself. As Newton said, "If I have seen further than others, it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants."

    An amusing quote from Einstein: "The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources."
  15. Jun 27, 2010 #14
    Most scientists, many very eminent, living since 1905, even those for whom SR and GR are now everyday tools of their trade, do credit him with an enormous change in our views of the fundamentals of space and time, changes which have not yet been superceded by other theories.

    In a few cases those who deny Einstein's importance to physics are personally hostile to him. In other cases detractors point out "glaringly obvious mistakes" in his theories, mistakes which, according to those detractors, people who accept Einstein's work are unable or unwilling to comprehend. Of couse it usually the detractors who do not understand, or do understand and set out to deliberately decieve those who have not yet studied SR or GR.

    There are of course many books which put the whole thing in historical context and give credit to scientists, many of them of enormous stature in their own right, on whose ideas Einstein may have drawn. No-one denied them the oppotunity of making the breakthrough, and some may have eventually got there. In that case we would be asking how important was (insert a name), really.

  16. Jun 27, 2010 #15
    As an examiner, or clerk he had a BS, did he not?
  17. Jun 27, 2010 #16
    just to clarify - my second paragraph's assertion is that there's a particular romanticised story we love to hear about Einstein, the lone genius outside the mainstream. I'm not endorsing this romantic vision - on the contrary: I think it disguises the collaborative aspects, and the study and hard work (from Einstein and others') that went into the discovery of relativity, and paints a misleading and distorting picture of scientific discovery.

    On another note, from what I've read of the Hilbert/Einstein issue, the priority dispute is a contentious issue and still raises hackles. I can't tell how much of this is (still) politically motivated one way or the other. Hilbert graciously stepped out of the way quickly. But there are many reasons why one might not want to get into a priority dispute.

    On another note, I've heard that Newton's `on the shoulders of giants' was in part a dig at Robert Hooke (from whom Newton took some ideas) and who was incredibly short and slightly hunchbacked and so it (the quote) was really Newton's way of saying that he hadn't taken anything from a hunchbacked midget.

    As I say - I've only heard this, I'm not endorsing it - but it wouldn't surprise me if Newton meant it this way. You want saints? turn to religion.
    Last edited: Jun 27, 2010
  18. Jun 27, 2010 #17
    Another point about GR is that Minkowski deserves some credit and in my opinion was more influential than Hilbert.

    Hilbert was someone who came in at the end and had the mathematical chops to close out the final steps, provide an alternate approach and give useful tools like identities. But, he was not in any way responsible for the physical insight that got the ball rolling, and put the conceptual structure in place.

    However, Minkowski proposed the idea of a spacetime interpretation of SR which is not what Einstein originally put forth. Eventually Einstein realized that the concept of spacetime was the key to GR. So, Minkowski was perhaps the most influential person on Einstein. Still, it was Einstein that always had the vision and knew the right questions to ask to formulate GR.
  19. Jun 28, 2010 #18
    <showing ignorance> what's the hilbert/einstein issue? <still showing ignorance>
  20. Jun 28, 2010 #19
    The main theoretical constructs associated with Einstein was only a part of his contribution. There was the photoelectric effect, brownian motion, which was responsible for finally convincing physicist of the reality of atoms, etc. He was at the forefront in the development of QM right up until QM was declared complete. This began the famous objections that continue in some forms to this day.

    Even without the theory of relativity, his contributions would remain significant. That got him the public recognition, but recognition among physicist would have remained regardless. Even if anti-semites could, which they can't, take away these main publicly attributed contributions that received public recognition, his contributions and recognition among scientist would remain.

    That said, I'm not so sure even special relativity would have come about in any reasonable period of time, as often presumed. In hindsight it's easy to presume it would, but consider the OP mentioning a teachers contention of how close Archimedes was to calculus. The contributions of others, such as Minkowski, Hilbert, Poincare, etc., etc. are at least as important physically as anything Einstein did. Yet these contributions were not done in absence of what came before either. Certain parts of Einstein's contributions are in some ways overinflated in public perception, while at the same time his actual contributions and those of others is under appreciated. It happens.
  21. Jun 30, 2010 #20
    All the topics discussed in this thread are addressed in a very nice book title "Einstein, his Life and Universe", by Walter Isaacson, 2007, Simon & Schuster, NY.

    edit: OK, I see this book is already mentioned by another.
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