How Smart Was Einstein? How did a man who had been working as a patent clerk publish four groundbreaking papers about space, time, atoms and the strange nature of light -- all in one year? A look at Albert Einstein's unique intelligence.

How Smart Was Einstein?

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

For some months now, we've been recalling the achievements of Albert Einstein. It's been 100 years since he published four scientific papers that altered our understanding of space and time. Historians call it his miracle year, 1905. That's the history we know, but journalism requires that we check up on the conventional wisdom, which explains how one of our correspondents began asking if Albert Einstein was really all that smart. Here are the findings from NPR's David Kestenbaum.


There are many things Einstein was not so good at. His poetry--it was OK. His violin-playing was passable. At some point Einstein was asked to be Israel's president and he declined; again, not his strength. In physics, somehow, he did seem superhuman. He never apparently took an IQ test.

Mr. GERALD HOLTON (Harvard University): But he did take a Rorschach test.

KESTENBAUM: Gerald Holton is a historian at Harvard. A psychiatrist showed Einstein a symmetrical inkblot and asked what he thought.

Mr. HOLTON: He looked at it, and people are supposed to talk about it. Well, he didn't. He looked at it and slowly rose from his seat and began to flap his arms to indicated that it had a kind of a birdlike thing. Now that hangs together with something he often said about himself: Words came with difficulty, but images came very easily to him.

KESTENBAUM: You might assume Einstein was unusually at home with numbers, but that's not true. Steven Weinberg is a physicist at the University of Texas and a Nobel laureate.

Mr. STEVEN WEINBERG (University of Texas, Nobel Laureate): He wasn't mathematically brilliant, and in fact, some of his contemporaries were much stronger mathematically than he was. Einstein was exceptional, but he wasn't, I think, that different. He wasn't qualitatively different from more run-of-the-mill physicists.

KESTENBAUM: And yet, Weinberg says, Einstein was the best physicist of the 20th century. So how does a guy who had been working in a patent office publish four groundbreaking papers about space, time, atoms and the weird nature of light all in one year? Luck?

Mr. LEONARD SUSSKIND (Stanford University): Einstein, I think, was different. Einstein was different.

KESTENBAUM: Leonard Susskind is a physicist at Stanford University and one of the pioneers of something called string theory, which many believe could sew up the problem Einstein was working on when he died, a sort of theory of everything. Susskind says Einstein had an exceptionally clear way of thinking that wouldn't really register on any test, but he says you can't miss it reading Einstein's papers.

Mr. SUSSKIND: I was about 20 years old, and a professor of mine at CCNY, at City College of New York, said, `Look, you're a smart young man. Why don't you learn a little bit about physics?' And I said, `What should I read?' And he said, `Why don't you just go straight to the horse's mouth? Why don't you read Einstein's first paper on the special theory of relativity?' And so I sat down and I started to read it, and I said, `Holy smoke! I can understand this.' And I was so thunderstruck by it.

KESTENBAUM: Susskind says the paper had no jargon, just simple ideas, inescapable logic and shocking conclusions for space and time, proof, he says, Einstein was exceptional. Many also point out that Einstein worked unusually by devising little experiments he could think through in his head. The idea for that paper began with an image he thought about at age 16: What would it be like to ride alongside a ray of light? Steven Weinberg.

Mr. WEINBERG: There was a problem that confronted physicists near the beginning of the century: What does light look like to a moving observer? You know, when you drive past--alongside a railway train and you're going in the same direction, the railway train looks like it's going slower than it would look if you were just standing still. Does light behave that way?

KESTENBAUM: The answer was no, but everybody was in denial. Einstein alone faced up to it. Light would always look it was moving at the same speed. This very simple idea had crazy consequences. If light's speed didn't change, something else had to. It meant time was not the regular tick-tock everyone had assumed. Example: If you owned a perfectly accurate watch and ran around the block, when you returned, your watch would have slipped a tiny, tiny, tiny split second behind compared to a clock in the house. You'd have aged a tad more slowly, too. This was Einstein's theory of special relativity. Leonard Susskind and Steven Weinberg say Einstein also stands out because he seemed not to need the earthly world of telescopes, wires and batteries.

Mr. SUSSKIND: He thought in a way which, in many instances, allowed him to completely circumvent and go around the question of experimental evidence. That certainly fascinates me.

Mr. WEINBERG: When he developed relativity, experiments were done to test whether or not the motion of very rapidly moving electrons fit his theory. And at first, the experiments, in particular by a man named Walter Kauffman, seemed to show that experiment contradicted his theory. And Einstein's attitude was, `Well, so much the worse for Kauffman.' He knew his theory was right. That's not an attitude I exactly recommend to all physics students, but Einstein's instincts were correct in that case.

KESTENBAUM: You might chalk up some of Einstein's success to good fortune. He lived at the time when there were problems ripe to be solved. If you look at those four papers published a hundred years ago this year, physicists and historians say that had Einstein not come up with those ideas, somebody else probably would have in the coming years. However, the thing that really seals the case for Einstein's legacy is something he did later. It still stuns everybody. Einstein, thinking not this time about chasing light rays but about riding in a falling elevator, published his theory of gravity, general relativity. The moon orbited the Earth, not because Earth was pulling on it really, but because Earth's great mass was warping the space around it. Think of a bowling ball on a trampoline. Gerald Holton, the Harvard historian, says it was a complete rethinking of what gravity was.

Mr. HOLTON: This was truly work of a superhuman mind. I think everybody agrees that nobody thought Einstein could have done it, and he nearly didn't. He nearly died of it. He was so sick mentally and physically that if it hadn't been for his future wife Elsa, I don't know whether he would have pulled through.

KESTENBAUM: So yes, if genius is measured by accomplishment, Einstein certainly qualifies. Einstein didn't like the word `genius,' though. He was often asked what made him different. He once said, `God gave me the stubbornness of a mule and a fairly keen scent.' He had great instincts.

Mr. HOLTON: And that's why our string theorists one flight up from where I'm sitting in Jefferson Lab--the 30 of them--they essentially kidnapped the bust of Einstein, which was elsewhere in the building, and put it where they were, because they think that there is somebody that they would like to be close to.

Mr. WEINBERG: Einstein is I think universally regarded by physicists as well as by the general public as the greatest of all of us.

KESTENBAUM: Steven Weinberg.

Mr. WEINBERG: But I think there is an important point that has to be made. We don't go back to sacred texts or divinely inspired prophets. No one today would settle at an argument about gravitation by going back to the words of Einstein and seeing what he had to say. Any reasonably competent physicist--I would almost say any reasonably good graduate student--understands general relativity better than Einstein did. Einstein is a hero. You know, my goodness, the physicist was named by Time magazine as man of the century. That's pretty good.

KESTENBAUM: And here is Leonard Susskind.

Mr. SUSSKIND: I wake up every morning and say, `What would Einstein do?' And I find great pleasure in it, frankly. I don't think I'm as smart as Einstein; I don't think anybody around is. But in small ways, I sometimes get satisfaction about thinking, `You know, Einstein might have thought about this the same way.' Of course, I don't usually go around telling my friends that.

KESTENBAUM: Susskind says there is a side of Einstein he doesn't really know how to talk about. After Einstein worked on gravity, he tried to come up with a grand theory that would wrap up much of physics into a neat package, but his persistence tripped him up. For 30 years, Einstein went down what turned out to be a dark alley. As he once said, `God gave me the stubbornness of a mule.' David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

INSKEEP: You don't have to be a genius to find a link to the American Institute of Physics' Einstein exhibit. Just go to

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