Today’s amazing communication technologies owe much to some of Albert Einstein’s greatest discoveries.
For example, the cameras in cellphones and other electronic devices are based on the photoelectric effect, for which Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize. GPS systems take into account the stretching of time due to gravity, another of Einstein’s predictions in his magnificent general theory of relativity. Given that many scientists embrace technology, it is interesting to speculate what kind of phone or device Einstein would be using if he were alive today. Would Einstein be texting, tweeting, or video-chatting?
The surprising answer might be none of the above.
By today’s standards, Einstein was a loner. He didn’t like any kind of phone, which, of course, in his time was a simple landline. Much of his day was spent in silent reflection, save short breaks to discuss ideas with his assistants or to indulge in his passion for music (he loved playing violin).
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Sure, he enjoyed fiddling with gadgets. He relished the gift of a compass as a child, and loved tinkering with a microscope given to him at his 50th birthday party. He even invented a kind of refrigerator.
But in terms of communications devices, he liked them as far away as possible. He once declared that he could concentrate best and be most creative “away from the horrible ringing of the telephone,” such as on ocean voyages.
In the early 1930s, Einstein spent each summer in a custom-built house in a lakeside village near Potsdam, Germany. The house had no phone. Visitors would write to him in advance or just stop by unannounced. He didn’t care if dignitaries surprised him when he was in his pajamas. He argued to his wife that they came to see him, not his clothes.
Einstein loved going sailing, often solo, to be alone with his thoughts and free of intrusions. With the shoreline miles away, and only still waters as company, no one could interrupt his thinking as he pondered theories of nature. He couldn’t swim, so whenever he ran into trouble, such as his boat becoming capsized, he waited patiently for a local seafarer to rescue him.
When Einstein relocated to Princeton after the Nazi regime took power in Germany, he became, if anything, even more of a loner. He spent hours each day barricaded in the upstairs study of his house, working out equations for unified field theories.
He gave strict instructions to his wife and secretary that disturbances be kept to a minimum. Sometimes he would feign being sick to ward off visitors. When he went out, he often took quiet walks with his assistants or his close friends such as mathematician Kurt Godel. He loved tete-a-tete chats, and the laughter of children, just not the clamor of phones.
There is a hallowed tradition of great thinkers seeking solitude, from Gautama Buddha, who meditated for many days near a tree until he found enlightenment, to Henry Thoreau, who practiced self-reliance in an isolated cabin on Walden Pond. Until recently, libraries were chapels of silence, permitting anyone to find a haven for reading and reflection (the strict rules seem to have eased up a bit in many libraries).
Today we are in the midst of a global experiment with instantaneous interconnection. Save isolated wilderness areas, now almost anywhere in the world solitude has become a choice, not a necessity. Yet, to support creative thinkers who might sometimes need time for reflection, we need to maintain the option of periods of disconnection. Just as Walden Pond is now protected land, we need to preserve Waldens of the mind.
Einstein began his career working at a patent office in Switzerland. He was so efficient that he had plenty of time to think about deep questions in physics — leading to his development of the special theory of relativity. Suppose he were working at such an office today and was deluged by emails, texts and calls from his superiors — not only on the job but also after hours. What if they told him that if he didn’t respond promptly he could be fired? Where would he find the silent space needed for his creative efforts?
Our society is fortunate today that it has so many opportunities for people connecting electronically. However, following Einstein’s lead, we need to offer space for solitude and self-reflection as well. The off button must always be there as a choice.