Einstein: The Light-Beam Rider


Niagara falls at night and the light show

Source: New York Times

THIS month marks the 100th anniversary of the General Theory of Relativity, the most beautiful theory in the history of science, and in its honor we should take a moment to celebrate the visualized “thought experiments” that were the navigation lights guiding Albert Einstein to his brilliant creation. Einstein relished what he called Gedankenexperimente, ideas that he twirled around in his head rather than in a lab. That’s what teachers call daydreaming, but if you’re Einstein you get to call them Gedankenexperimente.

As these thought experiments remind us, creativity is based on imagination. If we hope to inspire kids to love science, we need to do more than drill them in math and memorized formulas. We should stimulate their minds’ eyes as well. Even let them daydream.

Einstein’s first great thought experiment came when he was about 16. He had run away from his school in Germany, which he hated because it emphasized rote learning rather than visual imagination, and enrolled in a Swiss village school based on the educational philosophy of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, who believed in encouraging students to visualize concepts. While there, Einstein tried to picture what it would be like to travel so fast that you caught up with a light beam. If he rode alongside it, he later wrote, “I should observe such a beam of light as an electromagnetic field at rest.” In other words, the wave would seem stationary. But this was not possible according to Maxwell’s equations, which describe the motion and oscillation of electromagnetic fields.

The conflict between his thought experiment and Maxwell’s equations caused Einstein “psychic tension,” he later recalled, and he wandered around nervously, his palms sweating. Some of us can recall what made our palms sweaty as teenagers, and those thoughts didn’t involve Maxwell’s equations. But that’s because we were probably performing less elevated thought experiments.

By the early 1900s, a variety of experiments showed that light traveled at a constant speed, irrespective of the observer’s motion relative to the light source. The physics community was puzzled by this, just as Einstein was still puzzled by his attempts to imagine riding alongside a light beam. So, in 1905, he performed some new thought experiments.

He was then working at the Swiss patent office. Every day, he would attempt to visualize how an invention and its underlying theoretical premises would play out in reality.

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