Will there ever be another Einstein? This is the undercurrent of conversation at Einstein memorial meetings throughout the year. A new Einstein will emerge, scientists say. But it may take a long time. After all, more than 200 years separated Einstein from his nearest rival, Isaac Newton.
Many physicists say the next Einstein hasn't been born yet, or is a baby now. That's because the quest for a unified theory that would account for all the forces of nature has pushed current mathematics to its limits. New math must be created before the problem can be solved.
But researchers say there are many other factors working against another Einstein emerging anytime soon.
For one thing, physics is a much different field today. In Einstein's day, there were a few thousand physicists worldwide, and the theoreticians who could intellectually spar with Einstein probably would fit into a streetcar with seats to spare.
Philosopher as well as physicist
Education is different, too. One crucial aspect of Einstein's training that is overlooked, says Notre Dame science historian Don Howard, is the years of philosophy he read as a teenager — Kant, Schopenhauer and Spinoza, among others. It taught him to how to think independently and abstractly about space and time, Howard says, and it wasn't long before he became a philosopher himself.
"The independence created by philosophical insight is — in my opinion — the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth," Einstein wrote in 1944.
And he was an accomplished musician. The interplay between music and math is well-known. Einstein would furiously play his violin as a way to think through a knotty physics problem.
Today, universities have produced millions of physicists. There aren't many jobs in science for them, so they go to Wall Street and Silicon Valley to apply their analytical skills to more practical — and rewarding — efforts.
Less tolerance for renegades?
Those who stay in science don't work alone. At labs like CERN, the world's largest particle physics center in Switzerland, 100 researchers collaborate on a single atom-smashing experiment. Publishing the results takes years.
It's hard to imagine a renegade like Einstein tolerating it.
"Maybe there is an Einstein out there today," said Columbia University physicist Brian Greene, "but it would be a lot harder for him to be heard."
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Especially considering what Einstein was proposing.
"The actual fabric of space and time curving? My God, what an idea!" Greene said at a recent gathering at the Aspen Institute. "It takes a certain type of person who will bang his head against the wall because you believe you'll find the solution."
Perhaps the best examples are the five scientific papers Einstein wrote in his "miracle year" of 1905. These "thought experiments" were pages of calculations signed and submitted to the prestigious journal Annalen der Physik by a virtual unknown. There were no footnotes or citations.
What might happen to such a submission today?
"We all get papers like those in the mail," Greene said. "We put them in the crank file."
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