Image credit:  Paul EhrenfestGraf

Image credit: Paul EhrenfestGraf

I don't know how, when, or why this myth emerged that Einstein was a poor or lazy student, or that he valued the creative side of humanity over the analytical. Perhaps it's because Einstein himself often downplayed his own mathematical prowess and emphasized the power of imagination. Perhaps it's because Einstein's genius is so unattainable to us mere mortals that we have to comfort ourselves otherwise we feel eternally insignificant.

It is true that Einstein was remarkably creative. One could safely argue that some of his contemporaries were at least as smart as the man himself, but nobody else thought the same way he did. He made brilliant and unparalleled leaps of insight, discovering hidden relationships with his favorite trick: the thought experiment. By imagining some scenario (racing a beam of light, falling off a tall tower, and so on) he was able to make astounding advances in our understanding of nature. 

But while thought experiments begin with creative thinking, they don't end there. Missing from the typical narrative is the exceedingly competent analytical mind that Einstein brought to the problems. He followed his thought experiments to their logical ends, and worked to express those creative insights in the language of mathematics.

It took Einstein seven years of dogged pursuit to go from simple thought experiments to General Relativity, our modern theory of gravity. Those years were full of blind alleys, wrong turns, stubborn biases that held him back, misgivings and unease about the results, and mathematics so advanced that few people could even keep up. And through it all persistence, persistence, persistence.

So I think the lesson here is that the key to success isn't just creativity. That is essential, for sure, but not the only ingredient. You also need to add to the mix some critical thinking, logic, analytics, and perseverance. Then you'll find the potent concoction that made Einstein so remarkable.

Paul M. Sutter is an astrophysicist at The Ohio State University and the chief scientist at COSI science center. Sutter is also host of Ask a Spaceman and Space Radio, and leads AstroTours around the world.

All Posts | Support