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?
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.