Thursday, October 31, 2013

What we can learn from Einstein

Everyone knows Albert Einstein - yes, that Einstein, the famous physicist, the man in the Swiss patent office who shattered the Newtonian ideals of fixed space and time. But even as we recite the stories, recalling the now familiar image of a wild-haired, wrinkle-browed old man, there are things that we miss. Here are a few.

1) Einstein won the Nobel Prize, but that's not what he's most famous for.
Einstein's Nobel was for his work on the photoelectric effect, which describes how materials struck by certain types of light can emit electrons. It's worth noting that while most people don't even know what the photoelectric effect is (or Brownian motion, for that matter), they can correctly link Einstein with "the theory of relativity." Both endeavors were important to physics, but only one was able to capture the public's attention. In other words, what review committees might view as "Nobel-worthy" may not be popular (interesting to a wider audience), and vice versa. When funding is based solely on one of these criteria, it can lead to a loss of good science.

2) Einstein's H-index probably wasn't all that high (during his lifetime).
Sure, Einstein published some really seminal papers, especially in 1905. He published lots of papers over his entire career (though not as many as some frighteningly prolific researchers), though many of those papers he did publish weren't necessarily peer-reviewed. But it's whether people properly cite your work that counts where the H-index is concerned, and despite his brilliance, many of Einstein's papers were greeted with nods of agreement and nothing more. If you only consider the "miracle year," in fact, Einstein's calculated H-index - often used as a means of determining whether you deserve a job - would have been in the measly single digits. Using metrics like the H-index may be interesting, but they're not the penultimate indication of how good you are at science.

3) Einstein struggled to find a faculty job.
Getting tenured (or at least tenure-track) jobs in academia is hard enough when you're not Einstein, so it's always scary to consider that the man himself had trouble finding a job that would allow him to work on theoretical physics. Two frustrating years after he graduated, he managed to get the position at the patent office (with the assistance of his friend's dad); not what he wanted, but at least something to pay the bills and allow him a little free time to pursue his work. Einstein's first lecturer position didn't come until more than three years after the 1905 "miracle year." Imagine how the history of physics might be different had someone in academia recognized Einstein's potential earlier.

4) Einstein was a trouble-maker.
It's a common misconception that Einstein, as a kid, was bad at school - in fact, his grades were exceptional. However, he had a massive distrust for what he considered to be "arbitrary" authority, and he hated the general form of early schooling. Memorization and recitation bored him, and eventually he would take his teacher's advice and leave school (so as not to disrupt the classroom any further). It was only at the Swiss school in Aarau that teachers recognized Einstein's gift and allowed him the freedom to pursue his own studies - eventually allowing him to become one of the most prominent physicists of all time. That student in your class, who doesn't do the homework and would rather make snide observations than listen quietly, could be acting out of boredom, or a longing for freedom and purpose; that student could be the next Einstein.

If Einstein really is our role model, our categorical scientist, then we would do well to learn everything we can from his life.

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