Way to Go, Einstein; His Time Spent Being Wrong

When you hear someone say “Einstein”, what’s the first thing that pops into your head? Is it high IQ… genius… or maybe E=MC2? Do you picture his wild grey hair shooting in all directions as he peacefully folds the pages back from his favorite book?  You might even think of nuclear bombs, clocks and the Nobel Prize. It will come as a surprise to many that these accomplishments were a very small part of his life. Indeed, Einstein turned the world of classical physics upside down with his general theory of relativity. But he was only in his early twenties when he did so.

What about the rest of his life? Was Einstein a “one-hit-wonder”? What else did he put his remarkable mind to? Surely he tackled other dilemmas that plagued the scientific world during his moment in history. He was a genius after all… arguably one of the smartest people to have ever walked the earth. His very name has become synonymous with genius. He pulled the rug out from under Isaac Newton, whose theories had held the universe together for over 300 years. He talked about enigmatic concepts like space and time with an elegance that laid bare the beauty hidden within their simplicity. Statues have been made of him. His name and face are recognizable across the globe.

But when you hear someone say “Einstein”, do you think of a man who spent the better half of his life… being wrong?  You should.

Growing Up

It will not come as a surprise that Albert showed a propensity for the scientific arts at a young age.  He was around four or five years old when he became enchanted with his father’s compass, and the invisible force that kept its needle pointing North despite the compass housing’s position. His parents were Jewish and he went through a brief stint of religious practice beginning when he was eleven. But his increasing level of knowledge, most of which came from books he read outside of school, led him to reject all religious dogma by the time he was thirteen.

Einstein with his sister Maja via Time

At the age of 18, Albert entered a teacher’s training program at Zurich Polytechnic in Switzerland. Considering what he was to become in a few years, it’s difficult to say why he chose the path of a teacher. It is known that he was disillusioned with his formal school experiences and was largely self-taught. One could argue that maybe he wanted to become a teacher to teach the way he thought kids should be taught. On the other hand, his family was undergoing financial difficulties at the time and maybe he was simply trying to secure a steady income in a fail-safe way.

During his time in Zurich, he began to work closely with Heinrich Weber, a well-credentialed physics professor. In a bit of irony, he was taken aback by Weber’s refusal to accept new developments in the field of electromagnetism. This lead Albert to study the works of Maxwell, Hertz and Kirchoff. These studies would become instrumental in the shaping of his thoughts in the coming years.


After graduating from Zurich, Albert found employment as a patent clerk, which left him ample time to contemplate the mysteries of the universe. On one particularly boring day, he causally observed a group of workers on scaffolding outside his office window. He imagined what it would be like from the point of view of physics if one of them fell from the scaffolding and entered a free-fall state. He would be, for all practical purposes, temporarily weightless. If he were to perform experiments during free-fall, would he not get the same results as someone floating in outer-space outside of any gravitational field? Taken further, if the man falling from the scaffolding was inside a windowless box, how would he know if he was in free-fall or in outer-space?

Einstein as a young man via Science Magazine.

A few hours later, he observed a large clock whilst on the train home, and watched the hands tick as his train accelerated away. What would happen if the train continued to accelerate? He sees the hands of the clock via the light coming from them. But light has a finite speed. Thus the faster he accelerates away from the clock, the slower the hands will appear to move. The faster he goes, the longer it would take for the light to reach his eyes. But how does that change time itself? After all, the clock on his wrist will still tick at the same rate. Two clocks that were in sync moments before are now out of sync when one of them is in motion? How does that even work?

And what would happened if the train accelerated to the same velocity as light? The large clock in the city would appear to stop ticking altogether… But what would the light rays look like? Maxwell says that light is an oscillating electric and magnetic field. Would the fields stop oscillating… frozen in time? Even though the clock on his wrist ticks at a normal rate?

These thoughts would eventually lead Albert Einstein, at just 26 years of age, to the ground breaking realization that all physical law must be the same to all observers despite their (non-accelerating) frames of reference. This includes the speed of light, which must be measured the same no matter how fast you’re going.

Fall From Grace

Albert’s special and general relativity theory would catapult him to fame. But a new challenge was brewing inside the mysterious world of incandescent light bulbs. Max Planck was trying to figure out how to make the things more efficient. They’re quite simple… pass electricity through a filament housed inside a vacuum. The filament gets hot and gives out light. But how this actually occurred did not match what current theory said should occur.

Planck wrote about the Ultraviolet Catastrophe if you want some more light reading, but the short of the story is that he had to break the energy coming off the filament into little discrete packets in order to make the math work. When Albert caught wind of this, he realized he could use Planck’s new discrete energy packets to solve a nagging problem with something known as the photoelectric effect. With one simple equation — e = hf — , Einstein was able to explain why electrons could be removed from a metal surface with blue light, but not with red. He used Planck’s discrete energy packets to turn light into discrete energy packets, called quanta. He would receive the Nobel Prize in 1922 for this discovery.

Via Quartz

It would have been impossible for him to have known that his explanation of the photoelectric effect would lead to a battle for the definition of reality. A battle he would ultimately lose.

The problem with the light quanta idea is that light is most certainly a wave. It was proven to be so by Thomas Young in the early 1800s, and the nature of light was explained by Maxwell in 1865 — it was a wave composed of oscillating electric and magnetic fields that propagated through space. So how then can it be packets of energy, what we call photons today? Packets should behave like particles. So is light composed of waves or a particles?

This question would dog the heels of physicists for the next several decades. Einstein would argue that the wave nature of light was due to statistical interactions between the photons. But the who’s who of Quantum Theory said that the wave nature of light was probabilistic because the locations of the individual photons was not known, that a light wave is simply a wave of probability that represents the probable locations of the photons. Both of these interpretations yield the same outcome, but the philosophical divide between them is great indeed. Einstein believed in a deterministic universe — meaning light quanta occupied a single point in space and time outside of a measurement system. Quantum theory is non-deterministic — meaning that so long as a light quanta is not being measured, one cannot determine if it’s a wave of light or particle of light.

Albert Einstein put the full force of his mind against quantum theory for the last decades of his life. He left no stone unturned and used every trick up his sleeve to circumvent quantum theory. But he could never find away around it. Today, advanced experiments have proven that he was wrong. Proven that quantum theory is true, no matter how unbelievable it might seem.

Albert Einstein was a great scientist. But his refusal to accept overwhelming evidence that quantum theory was real, that the heart of reality is non-deterministic, should go down in history as a disappointment. On the other hand, perhaps his constant challenges to the theory sharpened it to what it is today. I leave you to decide.

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