Influencers of Albert Einstein's Work


Simon D. Murray, MD: You know, Albert Einstein was a prolific reader of history, right? And scientific literature, too. I don’t know the name of the writer, but he was influenced by a man who was interested in going back into time and wrote science fiction about space and time. It wasn’t scientific, but he was influenced by that. That’s kind of an interesting story.

Frederick E. Lepore, MD: I think with every creative guy you’re going to have some blazing insights, and you’re going to figure out things like special relativity and E = mc2.

Simon D. Murray, MD: That’s what I’m getting at. At the time Einstein was formulating his ideas, the world was in a place where there were other scientists who had similar ideas. So he probably learned a lot of what he knew from other people. There’s also a suspicion that he had a girlfriend who might have helped him with his work.

Frederick E. Lepore, MD: Mileva Maric, his wife. It was his fellow student at Zurich Polytechnic. Again, with someone with these kinds of achievements, there’s always this kind of undercurrent of, “Well, maybe his wife was the brains behind the act,” and we’re never going to know. Needless to say, they met in class. She must have been an exceptional woman. Can you imagine?

Simon D. Murray, MD: The only woman in her class.

Frederick E. Lepore, MD: Yes. She was a very, very bright person, whether she could have helped him in 1905—that miracle year—when he came up with E = mc2, special relativity, quantum theory, and the Brownian motion paper that helped prove the existence of atoms. And you’re going, “It was 1905. They must have known about atoms.” Well actually, you needed the guy to statistically prove it, and that’s one of the things that Einstein did in that year. So I’m sure that they bounced things off of each other’s heads.

Simon D. Murray, MD: And the thing about trains, or the movement of trains in time. Can you talk about that, and how that helped him? Knowing about train movements—that’s what he did when he was in Bern, right? He worked out train schedules?

Frederick E. Lepore, MD: Well, yes. He was not an easy guy, and the professors at Zurich didn’t like him. They thought he was kind of a smart ass, so he couldn’t get an assistantship. He was basically boxed out of the academic structure at that point, so he was starving. He was doing some tutoring, and then a friend intervenes and gets him a job as patent clerk third class, in Bern, Switzerland. And so, he’s reviewing tons and tons of patent applications. Unfortunately, the Swiss, with their great efficiency, have destroyed all of the patent applications with his handwritten notes that he must have done from 1905 to 1908. Can you imagine if we actually found those things?

Simon D. Murray, MD: Wow.

Frederick E. Lepore, MD: They’re gone.

Simon D. Murray, MD: Yes.

Frederick E. Lepore, MD: But one of the things that was going on was the railway trying to link up… If a train in Berlin is coming in at 10:15, what does that mean if you’re in Paris? You had to have a way of gauging the simultaneity of train travel across large distances. So he was being exposed to time and the problems inherent in time. I don’t know what percolates in the mind of a genius for all times, but he finally started to come up…this was the basis of special relativity, in which he was saying every observer has his own frame of reference—timeframe.

That’s a nice thing to say. What does that mean? That means the classic picture is, if you’re an observer on a train embankment and a train car is moving past you and lightning hits each end of the train car, well, you know the lightning is simultaneous. It hits each end of that moving train car. You’re going to say, “Well, it happens simultaneously.” The observer in the train car is not going to see that. The train has moved infinitesimally forward. It’s moving along. And so, you’re going to see the lightning strike at the front before you see the strike at the back. So now you don’t have the simultaneity that the observer on the embankment had. And Einstein goes, “You see, there’s no right framework. There’s no constant universal time.” Isaac Newton thought time was universal, but Einstein said, “No, it’s the observer.”

This is a very thoughtful guy who, by the way, is not in a PhD program. He’s grinding out the patent applications and he writes these papers. He writes 5 or 6 papers in 1905, and the most preeminent physics journal published them. The closest you can probably come to it is maybe Newton after he left London with the plague in the 1600s. He put together the idea of gravitation and the idea of the calculus. But to have 4, 5, 6 things like that in 1 year, it’s like how did that happen?

Simon D. Murray, MD: Without mentoring. Really, there was no mentoring at all.

Frederick E. Lepore, MD: Yes. Now maybe that’s the secret, though, not to have the mentoring. The German system was, “Do it my way. I’m the professor. This is what we do in my laboratory.” Einstein was a free agent who was left to his own theories. He only had himself to talk to.

Simon D. Murray, MD: Yes. I guess the German way was to do the experiment, and if it didn’t work, believe the theory. Einstein’s way was to do the experiment. The result, if it worked the way the experiment worked, was to throw the theory out if it didn’t fit the experiment.

Frederick E. Lepore, MD: Absolutely. And, by the way, his lab was his head. It was the thought experiments—the Gedanken experiments. But he had a great intuitive sense of physics, so he could think about the observer on the embankment looking at trains going by, or what it’s like if somebody falls off a roof, how they experience gravity, and things like that. So he had a great visceral sense of the physics.

And that’s where it probably got harder for him. When you get into things like the theory of everything, quantum mechanics, and general relativity, you don’t have an intuitive visceral gut feeling for the curvature of space, time, things like that. And so, now he had to rely on mathematical formalisms. He had to learn the math as he went along. At first, early in his career, he said, “I don’t need the math. Theory of special relativity—somebody who knows a little bit about algebra can deal with that.” But you get to these later abstruse things like general relativity and you’ve got to know some serious math. You know tensor calculus, non-Euclidean geometry. I can say these things, but I don’t understand them. But I’m going to tell you, he had to learn those. Those are not things that you experience during seat-of-the-pants kinds of experiences. So that may have been why it was harder for him. Once he got past general relativity in 1915, it was harder for him.

Transcript edited for clarity.

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