Albert Einstein made extensive use of analogy to understand concepts and thought experiments to imagine difficult concepts. His writing was the product of creative thinking — the thought experiments and testing the physicist conducted give a useful framework of the scientific approach to reasoning.
Between 1936-1938, Einstein worked with Polish physicist Leopold Infeld at Princeton University. It was there that the two scientists co-formulated the equation describing star movements and co-wrote The Evolution of Physics. In it, they explain why certain theories came into being and their meaning to modern physics.
Modern physics is a way of looking at problems, they say, testing them and resolving them through scientific theory. Each time scientific theory solves a problem, it creates a new set of problems that furthers scientific inquiry. Which is why the mechanical view of physics gives way to field theory that in turn gives way to relativity, which leads us to quantum mechanics.
At each step of the intellectual journey, we need to discard some ideas to make room for the new theory, and at the same time we explain and understand others more fully. In the preface, Einstein and Infeld say:
The book is a simple chat between you and us. You may find it boring or interesting, dull or exciting, but our aim will be accomplished if these pages give you some idea of the eternal struggle of the inventive human mind for a fuller understanding of the laws governing physical phenomena.
The intention was to sketch a broad outline of the history of physics, “to find a connection between the world of idea and the world of phenomena.” We can attempt to solve the great mystery that is nature, but in the end, we realize that much is still remaining unsolved, if it ever will be.
Knowing reality is a more complex challenge than meets the eye. They say:
In nearly every detective novel since the admirable stories of Conan Doyle there comes a time when the investigator has collected all the facts he needs for at least some phase of his problem. These facts often seem quite strange, incoherent, and wholly unrelated.
The great detective, however, realizes that no further investigation is needed at the moment, and that only pure thinking will lead to a correlation of the facts collected. So he plays his violin, or lounges in his armchair enjoying a pipe, when suddenly, by Jove, he has it! Not only does he have an explanation for the clues at hand but he knows that certain other events must have happened. Since he now knows exactly where to look for it, he may go out, if he likes, to collect further confirmation for his theory.
It is a familiar fact to readers of detective fiction that a false clue muddles the story and postpones the solution.
Intuitive conclusions based on immediate observation are not always to be trusted, for they sometimes lead to the wrong clues. But where does intuition go wrong?
In a good mystery story the most obvious clues often lead to the wrong suspects… the most obvious intuitive explanation is often the wrong one.
Galileo's discovery of scientific reasoning “was one of the most important achievements in the history of human thought, and marks the real beginning of physics.” It was then that we learned that believing intuitive conclusions from observation wasn't a sound approach.
A comparison of the Aristotelian intuition and Galileo's new clue help us see the difference with clarity:
Comparing the two methods of approaching the problem, we can say: the intuitive idea is the greater the action, the greater the velocity. Thus the velocity shows whether or not external forces are acting on a body.
The new clue found by Galileo is : if a body is neither pushed, pulled, nor acted on in any other way, or, more briefly, if no external forces act on a body, it moves uniformly, that is, always with the same velocity along a straight line. Thus, the velocity does not show whether or not external forces are acting on a body.
Galileo's conclusion, the correct one, was formulated a generation later by Newton as the law of inertia.
Inertia impacts our work in organizations, so it's a useful concept to learn to apply to to real world problems. Thinking about a potential experiment under ideal conditions helps us understand the problem more fully — we never have uniform motion in reality because we can't eliminate the influence of external factors.
Galileo replaced a faulty thought habit with a new one, which prompts a new question — how do we see the effect of external forces on an object if it's not velocity? The answer is our intervention, our pushing and pulling. Which then leads us to the concepts of “force” in relationship to “change” as applied to “velocity.” Which in turn leads us to Newton's gravity principle.
This is a simple illustration of how one thought experiment leads to formulating a theory to understand the underlying phenomena and keep exploring how one concept leads to another using questions. In the process of knowing new things, we deepen our understanding and we move into the realm of science:
Science must create its own language, its own concepts, for its own use. Scientific concepts often begin with those used in ordinary language for the affairs of everyday life, but they develop quite differently. They are transformed and lose the ambiguity associated with them in ordinary language, gaining in rigorousness so that they may be applied to scientific thought.
Our imagination helps us move away from old ideas and stay open to new ones:
Our interest here lies in the first stages of development, in following initial clues, in showing how new… concepts are born in the painful struggle with old ideas. We are concerned only with pioneer work in science, which consists of finding new and unexpected paths of development; with the adventures in scientific thought which create an ever-changing picture of the universe. The initial and fundamental steps are always of a revolutionary character.
Scientific imagination finds old concepts too confining, and replaces them by new ones. The continued development along any line already initiated is more in the nature of evolution, until the next turning point is reached when a still newer field must be conquered. In order to understand, however, what reasons and what difficulties force a change in important concepts, we must know not only the initial clues, but also the conclusions which can be drawn.
Most of the fundamental ideas of science are essentially simple, and may, as a rule, be expressed in a language comprehensible to everyone. To follow up these ideas demands the knowledge of a highly refined technique of investigation.
We search for new ideas when the old ones have run out of juice, out of necessity. This is still how we face change in business, we consider new ways when we're forced, when the velocity of change has an impact on the things we care about — mostly profitability.
Yet we forget that for the effects to become obvious, the forces have been in motion for a while and often fail to assess past decisions and their cumulative effect.
Nearly every great advance in science arises from a crisis in the old theory, through an endeavor to find a way out of the difficulties created. We must examine old ideas, old theories, although they belong to the past, for this is the only way to understand the importance of the new ones and the extent of their validity.
In the first pages of our book we compared the role of an investigator to that of a detective who, after gathering the requisite facts, finds the right solution by pure thinking. In one essential this comparison must be regarded as highly superficial. Both in life and in detective novels the crime is given. The detective must look for letters, fingerprints, bullets, guns, but at least he knows that a murder has been committed. This is not so for a scientist….
For the detective the crime is given, the problem formulated: who killed Cock Robin? The scientist must, at least in part, commit his own crime, as well as carry out the investigation. Moreover, his task is not to explain just one case, but all phenomena which have happened or may still happen.
Even when forced, we drag out feet and make half-hearted attempts to bolt new ideas onto old ones that may not hold them. But the bigger problem is that we're in love with quick fixes and answers rather than appreciating the power of better questions.
Yet we may choose to be conservative and seek a solution [to a result that shakes our belief] within the frame of old ideas. Difficulties of this kind, sudden and unexpected obstacles in the triumphant development of a theory, arise frequently in science. Sometimes a simple generalization of the old ideas seems, at least temporarily, to be a good way out…
Very often, however, it is impossible to patch up an old theory, and the difficulties result in its downfall and the rise of a new one.
The formulation of a problem is often more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill. To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science.
A new idea helps us gain a broader view of the terrain upon which we draw our maps. The point is that embarking on the discovery trains us to master how to deal with obstacles:
Creating a new theory is not like destroying an old barn and erecting a sky scraper in its place. It is rather like climbing a mountain, gaining new and wider views, discovering new connections between our starting point and its rich environment. But the point from which we started still exists and can be seen, although it appears smaller and forms a tiny part of our broad view gained by the mastery of the obstacles on our way up.
The value of science is that it helps us create knowledge we can use to understand the nature of reality, even as reality itself continues to be a moving target. This is important creative work.
Science forces us to create new ideas, new theories. Their aim is to break down the wall of contradictions which frequently blocks the way of scientific progress. All the essential ideas in science were born in a dramatic conflict between reality and our attempts at understanding. Here again is a problem for the solution of which new principles are needed.
The association of solved problems with those unsolved may throw new light on our difficulties by suggesting new ideas. It is easy to find a superficial analogy which really expresses nothing. But to discover some essential common features, hidden beneath a surface of external differences, to form, on this basis, a new successful theory, is important creative work.
The Evolution of Physics is a wonderful primer for seeing the bigger picture. It's a simple reminder of the usefulness of thinking to thought, as physicist David Bohm would say. See also why when we work on tree ideas, we make history.
[image: Einstein with Infeld]