Not a Lone Genius

With his unruly hair and rebellious streak, Albert Einstein is often remembered as the genius who worked alone. Unlike those participating in the "big science" projects of today—such as LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory), on which more than a thousand people collaborated to make the first direct detection of gravitational waves—Einstein is perceived as being the sole mind behind some of the greatest discoveries in physics.

But according to Diana Kormos-Buchwald, the Robert M. Abbey Professor of History at Caltech, Einstein did not, in fact, work alone.

"He was not the genius working in an attic with a pen and paper," she says. "Einstein may not have been working with large teams, but he was deeply embedded in the science community. Colleagues gave him advice and encouragement, but also criticized his work. And he, in turn, was instrumental in guiding and challenging others."

Kormos-Buchwald is director of the Einstein Papers Project, a unique and massive undertaking, located at Caltech, and supported by Caltech and Princeton University Press, that is publishing tens of thousands of documents, both scientific and personal, written by Einstein. Also included are incoming correspondences to Einstein from colleagues, family, friends and foes, journalists, politicians, students, and little-known members of the general public.

The material is published in The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein in an original-language edition with scholarly annotations as well as an English-language translation. The latest volume, Volume 15, The Berlin Years, Writing and Correspondence, June 1925-May 1927, was published in early 2018. As were all preceding volumes, it too will be made available electronically, for free, this coming spring.

Einstein is of course well-known for his theories of relativity. He developed the special theory of relativity in 1905 while working as a patent clerk in Switzerland. These ideas were honed through many conversations with Michele Besso, a college friend whom Einstein called the "best sounding board in Europe." Einstein also had many conversations with his first wife Mileva Marić about his scientific ideas.

His general theory of relativity, put forth in 1915, was much more difficult to develop, both conceptually and mathematically. He worked on it in fits and starts and had to retrace his steps and start anew on many occasions. Both Besso and mathematician Marcel Grossmann, another friend from his college days, helped Einstein develop his ideas through calculations and intense discussions. At one point, Einstein dismissed key ideas from Besso, only to later admit that his friend had been right all along.

Following his move to Berlin in 1914, at the age of 33, Einstein became a professor at the University of Berlin and nominally the director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Physics. In that capacity, especially after the end of World War I, he assisted many, especially younger, physicists in restarting their research by awarding small grants for both theoretical and experimental work. He also collaborated on experiments that he devised to test the structure of radiation and matter—tests that would help him decide between the particle and wave theories of light.

"In one of these collaborations he became the unwitting victim of experimental fraud, when his collaborator Emil Rupp fabricated laboratory data," explains Kormos-Buchwald.

Einstein also teamed up with astronomers eager to prove consequences of his general theory of relativity, including the existence of "gravitational redshift," a phenomenon that causes light waves to lengthen, or shift to lower frequencies, when climbing out of a gravitational well. In addition to this and many other joint experiments, he devised gadgets, worked in an industrial laboratory, and had several patents to his name, most famously for a new refrigerating system.

"But most interestingly, as illustrated by the correspondence in the latest Volume, he took an active part in the development of quantum mechanics by engaging in frequent exchanges with its young founders," says Kormos-Buchwald.

For example, Erwin Schrödinger's famous wave mechanic equations, which predict the behaviors of particles, were at least partly inspired by his discussions with Einstein. Schrödinger saw himself as only working out some of Einstein's original ideas and suggested a joint publication.

Einstein answered: "I just don't know whether I should count as a co-author since after all you did all the work; I would feel like an 'exploiter,' as the socialists like to put it so beautifully."

Werner Heisenberg also credited Einstein with having laid the foundation, during a conversation in April 1926, for his own discovery of the uncertainty relations in quantum physics almost a year later.

All of this begs the question: if Einstein was not in fact the lone genius, would others have quickly discovered his revolutionary theories of relativity?

"It's hard enough to know what did happen let alone what didn't," says Kormos-Buchwald. "Others likely would have made the same discoveries as Einstein, so it's not a matter of if they would have, but when."

Written by Whitney Clavin

Whitney Clavin
(626) 395-1944