London, 1930, autumn, night. The great and the good were gathering in their natural habitat, the Savoy Hotel. The grand ballroom was a sea of formal evening wear: white ties, tails, and elegant gowns. Baron Rothschild hosted the event, a charity dinner to benefit the tide of Eastern European Jewish refugees, already at risk from an increasingly hostile Germany. George Bernard Shaw was the master of ceremonies, although he had argued beforehand that he was insufficiently distinguished to introduce the night’s guest of honor. That duty, Shaw said, should rightly go to Britain’s prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, but the P.M. was unavailable. In any event, the playwright gave a brilliant performance, the best brief explanation on record of why that night’s honoree remains the modern archetype of genius.
“Ptolemy,” Shaw said, “made a universe which lasted two thousand years. Newton made a universe which lasted for three hundred years. Einstein has made a universe, which I suppose you want me to say will never stop, but I don’t know how long it will last.”
Einstein laughed out loud, and the audience laughed with him. As was so often the case, Shaw’s wit had captured an essential truth. The latter two in his litany of greats had created scientific accounts that encompassed the entire cosmos. And Einstein himself was, Shaw concluded, “the greatest of our contemporaries.”
In response, Einstein tried to turn back the hype, gently chiding Shaw for praising his “mythical namesake, who makes life so difficult for me.” (Years later Einstein wrote that “the contrast between the popular estimate of my powers and achievements and the reality is simply grotesque.”)
Today there is no doubt that Shaw was right. Einstein is by broad consensus the greatest scientist of the modern era. The universe he made has lasted 100 years—so far. Whether or not someone else will come along someday and define another universe remains an open question, of course. But the passage of time allows us to bring what made Einstein such a genius into sharper focus—and to guess what it might take to produce another.
One day Albert wondered,
“What would I see in a mirror
if I were traveling as fast as light?”
Another Einstein? A century ago, the question would have been, “Will there ever be another Newton?” The answer would surely have been, “Not likely.”
In 1904 the notion that a young Swiss patent examiner might be the next Isaac Newton would have been more than ridiculous; it would have been unthinkable, a joke so far-fetched it would have had no punch line. The 25-year-old Einstein was enjoying a perfectly good life—more or less the one he had sought as a somewhat rebellious university student. Valued at the patent office for his technical training, he was seemingly set for what would be the pleasant petit bourgeois life of a Swiss civil servant. He had published a handful of brief papers in a physics journal, none of them bad, none of them noteworthy. He appeared to be a bright amateur, a weekend physicist. In other words, he was no Newton. But that was no shame, for no one was.
Then, within a few months, everything changed. Over the first half of 1905, Einstein’s miracle year, he published major papers explaining Brownian motion and the reality of atoms, creating the quantum theory of light, and most famously, inventing the special theory of relativity. The famous equation E = mc2 came in an additional paper, a three-page note that appeared almost as an afterthought. Einstein was no longer an amateur. He would never again be unknown.
That’s not to say he ranked in the same league as Newton, not then. He would not extend relativity to encompass the entire universe for another decade—but already the miracle year reveals the critical common attribute the two men shared.
It wasn’t raw horsepower, surprisingly, and not pure ability. Newton’s mathematical skills were extraordinary. Einstein, although not a bad mathematician (for a physicist), never came close to Newton’s originality there. Nor was it personality. Beyond science, the two could not have been more different from each other. Newton was a virgin, a religiously driven obsessive who flirted with madness. Einstein was a relaxed, sensual man who found pleasure pleasurable and religious passion a waste of time. Still, the two men did share one critical skill: a profound gift for discovering the underlying simplicity of apparently intractably complicated problems.
The late Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman captured part of what made Newton different in a lecture about the proof that the planets must travel in elliptical orbits. Newton had achieved and Feynman re-created what he called an “elementary demonstration” of this proof. The word elementary, Feynman said, did not mean easy. Rather, it means that “very little is required to know ahead of time in order to understand it, except to have an infinite amount of intelligence.” It’s extraordinarily difficult, in other words, to abstract a problem to its simplest essence, the form in which it can be solved—and it was in this task that Einstein as well as Newton excelled beyond all peers.
Einstein used what were called thought experiments to achieve his radical simplifications. Special relativity emerged from a line of thinking that began when Einstein asked what would happen if he could chase a ray of light. His breakthrough realization of the relativity of time turned on a series of mental cartoons featuring trains and clocks. General relativity, his theory of gravity, started off as a meditation on what happens when a man falls off a roof.