In reading Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson, I’ve been intrigued by Einstein’s genius. Why is it we equate “Einstein” with “genius”? What made him so smart? It seems clear to me that, as Isaacson opines in his conclusion, Einstein’s genius was in his mind and not necessarily his brain.
I am not the only one who was fascinated by Einstein’s genius. Even at his death, Albert Einstein was regarded as someone with an incredible brain. The pathologist performing the autopsy decided, without asking permission, to embalm Einstein’s brain. For years, he kept the brain and drove around the United States touring with it. A few studies were done on the brain to try to determine what made Einstein a genius, but little has been proven scientifically. Eventually, in the late 1990s, Einstein’s brain was returned to the Einstein family (see Epilogue, pages 544-551).
Albert Einstein’s Genius in Childhood
Albert Einstein was a very bright student. He excelled in elementary school classes and consistently got top grades as he grew up. However, he had contempt for authority, which led to leaving high school early—it is uncertain whether he left of his own accord or was encouraged to leave. Regardless, he was a high school dropout (page 23). He tutored himself to be able to enter the academy (page 24). Then, once he entered the Zurich Polytechnic, he again acted impudently. For example, he felt the mathematics professor was disappointing. He didn’t hide his disdain and he often missed classes (page 34). Einstein was fourth in his graduating class of five (page 48), partially due to his poor attendance in his classes.
Ironically, because of his contempt for authority, he may have been better prepared for his “thought experiments.” Because he thought things through on his own so much (outside of a teacher’s structured lectures), he was able to see the world in a different way than had been accepted by the scientific community. Also, because his poor performance and poor recommendations hindered his job prospects, he was working in a patent office and brainstorming theoretical physics during his free time; had he been working as a professor, he may have been forced to tame his ideas to fit the temper of the university at which he was working. Einstein’s young impudence provided him with a setting in which to question the world.
His former mathematics professor later said to him, “You’re a very clever boy. … But you have one great fault: you’ll never let yourself be told anything” (page 34). While youthful insolence certainly is not enviable, the ability to freshly question others and the world certainly aided Einstein to greatness.
How a Genius Approaches Learning
When the already-famous Einstein visited the United States in 1921, Thomas Edison was an old man. Edison was a practical man, and he believed colleges were too theoretical. He had produced a 150-question test as a job application, which contained questions such as How is leather tanned? and What country consumes the most tea? (p 299).
When Einstein arrived in New York, a reporter presented him with a question from Edison’s test: What is the speed of sound? Einstein, of course, could easily understand the speed of sound. His response to the reporter, however, was that he did not “carry such information in my mind since it is readily available in books.” Einstein recognized that genius was not “the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think” (page 299). He didn’t spend his time memorizing things he could look up: he spent his time thinking. His willingness to think led him to his observations of the world that opened up new branches in science.
Why Einstein was Famous
Why did this make him famous? When Einstein’s son Eduard was young, he asked his father just that.
“When a blind beetle crawls over the surface of a curved branch, it doesn’t notice that the track it has covered is indeed curved,” Einstein replied. “I was lucky enough to notice what the beetle didn’t notice” (page 196).
Einstein’s response simplifies the concept that gravity curves the fabric of our world, a concept for which he was famous. However, it is also a good explanation of what made him a genius: he was able to comprehend concepts that had never been contemplated before. He was able to ponder concepts that challenge our understanding of the very nature of the universe, laws of nature that had been accepted widely since Newton.
The Mind of a Genius
I imagine that studying his brain further will not have revealed much difference from other human brains. In reading about his life and learning about the science he put voice to (much of which I still don’t quite understand), I believe that his physical brain was probably nothing special. What made Albert Einstein a genius was his unwillingness to simply accept what was given him (his resistance), his willingness to think rather than simply memorize, and his ability to comprehend new concepts. Indeed, an open mind created his greatness.
It’s not often that observations by one person change our understanding of the world, as Einstein’s observations changed physics. However, I believe that as others emulate Einstein’s open mind, they too may find their genius.
Surely, there is, to some extent, genius within each of us as well. Reading this great biography of Einstein has convinced me of such.
(Previously published on a personal page on January 15, 2008 in a slightly different form.)