Fri
Mar 14 2014 6:00am

Einstein Was the Luckiest Science Fiction Writer Ever

It’s not hard to idolize Albert Einstein on his pi day birthday, or any day. The man is responsible for the general and special theories of relativity, a cornerstone of physics and a way of understanding our universe that has proven so consistently reliable that it is probably the closest humanity will ever get to a decisive cosmic capital-T Truth. He’s the scientist you first learn about when you are introduced to the very concept of science. Mere decades after his death, his name is synonymous with the term “genius.” Even if you don’t know who Einstein is, you’ve still heard the term “Einstein.”

And how he came to that point is by exploring the world in exactly the same way we do when we write or talk about science fiction and fantasy.

In interviews over the course of his richly varied life, Einstein always referred to a single childhood anecdote when explaining to people what motivated him to delve into physics. Essentially, where did he get his ideas?

From Einstein: The Life and Times by Ron Clark:

The story is simply told that when the boy (Albert Einstein) was five, ill in bed, his father showed him a pocket compass. What impressed the child was that since the iron needle always pointed in the same direction, whichever way the case was turned, it must be acted upon by something that existed in space-the space that had always been considered empty....

To me, this is a perfect example of how our favorite sci-fi/fantasy authors also see the world. Einstein saw a compass needle floating, serene and separate, and imagined an invisible ocean upon which it bobbed.

J.R.R. Tolkien saw a world at war, the decimation of beautiful landscapes, the evil men inflict upon one another, the cycles of history and wondered...what if there was a beginning? H.P. Lovecraft stared unceasingly at the everyday and saw past to a dark queasiness that lay mired just beyond it. George Lucas’ saw a hero’s journey shining through, even in alien settings. H.G. Wells saw everything, the sky, the ocean, the ground beneath our feet, and endlessly imagined what lay past it.

The ideas that the compass instilled in Albert Einstein obviously never left him. He gained the knowledge he needed to dig deeper into his idea. He knew it was real, he just needed to flesh it out. And the more he explored, the more this instinct proved true, and thus did his idea become real. It was worldbuilding of the finest sort.

And we’re still building on that world today.


Chris Lough is the production manager of Tor.com and gives a big thank you to Jonathan Roberts for the title suggestion.

5 comments
Gerry__Quinn
1. Gerry__Quinn
On the contrary, general relativity is almost certainly wrong, given that it conflicts with quantum theory and the second law of thermodynamics. Black hole decay is forbidden by general relativity.

It's a very good approximation for most things, though.

And special relativity may be completely correct, for all we know.
Brian Kaul
2. bkaul
Every model we come up with to describe the universe is "wrong" ... some of them are very useful, though, and much better than previous ones.
Boquaz
3. boquaz
Einstein's greatest works are ~100 years old now and very few people understand them. The average engineer or biologist has never taken any class on GR and doesn't really understand why the photoelectric effect was so important. You end up with people talking about the existence of black holes or the quantum wave function but not GR... it makes no sense. Imagine if it was ok for an educated person to be ignorant of 100 years of work in other fields? Music might stop with Tchaikovsky and psychology might stop at Freud.

Before talking about what Einstein got wrong, it's worth understanding what he got right. He started with a simple, intuitive idea that gravity and constant acceleration "felt" the same. He then exploded that concept out into a complex mathematical description of energy, motion and time. He collected that complexity into a set of simplified equations and made testable predictions that work. That progression fundamentally changed the way physicists think about problems; we still follow his thought model.
Gerry__Quinn
4. Brandoch Daha
Actually it was Madame Curie who was the first scientist I learned about in school - that and the pioneering work done by Father Damien on leprosy and George Washington Carver on agriculture. Then I learned about Albert Einstein, together with Ernest Rutherford and the experiments with splitting the atom. (It wasn't until late in life that I discovered the truth about the splitting of the Beer Atom ... boy was I in for a surprise!
Gerry__Quinn
5. Gerry__Quinn
I suspect teachers might be wary of introducing Einstein as a role model in schools, given the risk of having to explain what the theory of relativity is all about!

Splitting atoms or discovering elements is something that is easier to explain / understand.

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