Einstein’s Superpowers

There is a wide­spread ten­dency to talk (and think) as if Ein­stein, New­ton, and similar his­tor­i­cal figures had su­per­pow­ers—some­thing mag­i­cal, some­thing sa­cred, some­thing be­yond the mun­dane. (Re­mem­ber, there are many more ways to wor­ship a thing than light­ing can­dles around its al­tar.)

Once I un­think­ingly thought this way too, with re­spect to Ein­stein in par­tic­u­lar, un­til read­ing Ju­lian Bar­bour’s The End of Time cured me of it.

Bar­bour laid out the his­tory of anti-epiphe­nom­e­nal physics and Mach’s Prin­ci­ple; he de­scribed the his­tor­i­cal con­tro­ver­sies that pre­dated Mach—all this that stood be­hind Ein­stein and was known to Ein­stein, when Ein­stein tack­led his prob­lem...

And maybe I’m just imag­in­ing things—read­ing too much of my­self into Bar­bour’s book—but I thought I heard Bar­bour very quietly shout­ing, coded be­tween the po­lite lines:

What Ein­stein did isn’t magic, peo­ple! If you all just looked at how he ac­tu­ally did it, in­stead of fal­ling to your knees and wor­shiping him, maybe then you’d be able to do it too!

(EDIT March 2013: Bar­bour did not ac­tu­ally say this. It does not ap­pear in the book text. It is not a Ju­lian Bar­bour quote and should not be at­tributed to him. Thank you.)

Maybe I’m mis­taken, or ex­trap­o­lat­ing too far… but I kinda sus­pect that Bar­bour once tried to ex­plain to peo­ple how you move fur­ther along Ein­stein’s di­rec­tion to get time­less physics; and they sniffed scorn­fully and said, “Oh, you think you’re Ein­stein, do you?”

John Baez’s Crack­pot In­dex, item 18:

10 points for each fa­vor­able com­par­i­son of your­self to Ein­stein, or claim that spe­cial or gen­eral rel­a­tivity are fun­da­men­tally mis­guided (with­out good ev­i­dence).

Item 30:

30 points for sug­gest­ing that Ein­stein, in his later years, was grop­ing his way to­wards the ideas you now ad­vo­cate.

Bar­bour never both­ers to com­pare him­self to Ein­stein, of course; nor does he ever ap­peal to Ein­stein in sup­port of time­less physics. I men­tion these items on the Crack­pot In­dex by way of show­ing how many peo­ple com­pare them­selves to Ein­stein, and what so­ciety gen­er­ally thinks of them.

The crack­pot sees Ein­stein as some­thing mag­i­cal, so they com­pare them­selves to Ein­stein by way of prais­ing them­selves as mag­i­cal; they think Ein­stein had su­per­pow­ers and they think they have su­per­pow­ers, hence the com­par­i­son.

But it is just the other side of the same coin, to think that Ein­stein is sa­cred, and the crack­pot is not sa­cred, there­fore they have com­mit­ted blas­phemy in com­par­ing them­selves to Ein­stein.

Sup­pose a bright young physi­cist says, “I ad­mire Ein­stein’s work, but per­son­ally, I hope to do bet­ter.” If some­one is shocked and says, “What! You haven’t ac­com­plished any­thing re­motely like what Ein­stein did; what makes you think you’re smarter than him?” then they are the other side of the crack­pot’s coin.

The un­der­ly­ing prob­lem is con­flat­ing so­cial sta­tus and re­search po­ten­tial.

Ein­stein has ex­tremely high so­cial sta­tus: be­cause of his record of ac­com­plish­ments; be­cause of how he did it; and be­cause he’s the physi­cist whose name even the gen­eral pub­lic re­mem­bers, who brought honor to sci­ence it­self.

And we tend to mix up fame with other quan­tities, and we tend to at­tribute peo­ple’s be­hav­ior to dis­po­si­tions rather than situ­a­tions.

So there’s this ten­dency to think that Ein­stein, even be­fore he was fa­mous, already had an in­her­ent dis­po­si­tion to be Ein­stein—a po­ten­tial as rare as his fame and as mag­i­cal as his deeds. So that if you claim to have the po­ten­tial to do what Ein­stein did, it is just the same as claiming Ein­stein’s rank, ris­ing far above your as­signed sta­tus in the tribe.

I’m not phras­ing this well, but then, I’m try­ing to dis­sect a con­fused thought: Ein­stein be­longs to a sep­a­rate mag­is­terium, the sa­cred mag­is­terium. The sa­cred mag­is­terium is dis­tinct from the mun­dane mag­is­terium; you can’t set out to be Ein­stein in the way you can set out to be a full pro­fes­sor or a CEO. Only be­ings with di­v­ine po­ten­tial can en­ter the sa­cred mag­is­terium—and then it is only fulfilling a des­tiny they already have. So if you say you want to outdo Ein­stein, you’re claiming to already be part of the sa­cred mag­is­terium—you claim to have the same aura of des­tiny that Ein­stein was born with, like a royal birthright...

“But Eliezer,” you say, “surely not ev­ery­one can be­come Ein­stein.”

You mean to say, not ev­ery­one can do bet­ter than Ein­stein.

“Um… yeah, that’s what I meant.”

Well… in the mod­ern world, you may be cor­rect. You prob­a­bly should re­mem­ber that I am a tran­shu­man­ist, go­ing around look­ing around at peo­ple think­ing, “You know, it just sucks that not ev­ery­one has the po­ten­tial to do bet­ter than Ein­stein, and this seems like a fix­able prob­lem.” It col­ors one’s at­ti­tude.

But in the mod­ern world, yes, not ev­ery­one has the po­ten­tial to be Ein­stein.

Still… how can I put this...

There’s a phrase I once heard, can’t re­mem­ber where: “Just an­other Jewish ge­nius.” Some poet or au­thor or philoso­pher or other, brilli­ant at a young age, do­ing some­thing not tremen­dously im­por­tant in the grand scheme of things, not all that in­fluen­tial, who ended up be­ing dis­missed as “Just an­other Jewish ge­nius.”

If Ein­stein had cho­sen the wrong an­gle of at­tack on his prob­lem—if he hadn’t cho­sen a suffi­ciently im­por­tant prob­lem to work on—if he hadn’t per­sisted for years—if he’d taken any num­ber of wrong turns—or if some­one else had solved the prob­lem first—then dear Albert would have ended up as just an­other Jewish ge­nius.

Ge­niuses are rare, but not all that rare. It is not all that im­plau­si­ble to lay claim to the kind of in­tel­lect that can get you dis­missed as “just an­other Jewish ge­nius” or “just an­other brilli­ant mind who never did any­thing in­ter­est­ing with their life”. The as­so­ci­ated so­cial sta­tus here is not high enough to be sa­cred, so it should seem like an or­di­nar­ily evaluable claim.

But what sep­a­rates peo­ple like this from be­com­ing Ein­stein, I sus­pect, is no in­nate defect of brilli­ance. It’s things like “lack of an in­ter­est­ing prob­lem”—or, to put the blame where it be­longs, “failing to choose an im­por­tant prob­lem”. It is very easy to fail at this be­cause of the cached thought prob­lem: Tell peo­ple to choose an im­por­tant prob­lem and they will choose the first cache hit for “im­por­tant prob­lem” that pops into their heads, like “global warm­ing” or “string the­ory”.

The truly im­por­tant prob­lems are of­ten the ones you’re not even con­sid­er­ing, be­cause they ap­pear to be im­pos­si­ble, or, um, ac­tu­ally difficult, or worst of all, not clear how to solve. If you worked on them for years, they might not seem so im­pos­si­ble… but this is an ex­tra and un­usual in­sight; naive re­al­ism will tell you that solv­able prob­lems look solv­able, and im­pos­si­ble-look­ing prob­lems are im­pos­si­ble.

Then you have to come up with a new and worth­while an­gle of at­tack. Most peo­ple who are not aller­gic to nov­elty, will go too far in the other di­rec­tion, and fall into an af­fec­tive death spiral.

And then you’ve got to bang your head on the prob­lem for years, with­out be­ing dis­tracted by the temp­ta­tions of eas­ier liv­ing. “Life is what hap­pens while we are mak­ing other plans,” as the say­ing goes, and if you want to fulfill your other plans, you’ve of­ten got to be ready to turn down life.

So­ciety is not set up to sup­port you while you work, ei­ther.

The point be­ing, the prob­lem is not that you need an aura of des­tiny and the aura of des­tiny is miss­ing. If you’d met Albert be­fore he pub­lished his pa­pers, you would have per­ceived no aura of des­tiny about him to match his fu­ture high sta­tus. He would seem like just an­other Jewish ge­nius.

This is not be­cause the royal birthright is con­cealed, but be­cause it sim­ply is not there. It is not nec­es­sary. There is no sep­a­rate mag­is­terium for peo­ple who do im­por­tant things.

I say this, be­cause I want to do im­por­tant things with my life, and I have a gen­uinely im­por­tant prob­lem, and an an­gle of at­tack, and I’ve been bang­ing my head on it for years, and I’ve man­aged to set up a sup­port struc­ture for it; and I very fre­quently meet peo­ple who, in one way or an­other, say: “Yeah? Let’s see your aura of des­tiny, buddy.”

What im­pressed me about Ju­lian Bar­bour was a qual­ity that I don’t think any­one would have known how to fake with­out ac­tu­ally hav­ing it: Bar­bour seemed to have seen through Ein­stein—he talked about Ein­stein as if ev­ery­thing Ein­stein had done was perfectly un­der­stand­able and mun­dane.

Though even hav­ing re­al­ized this, to me it still came as a shock, when Bar­bour said some­thing along the lines of, “Now here’s where Ein­stein failed to ap­ply his own meth­ods, and missed the key in­sight—” But the shock was fleet­ing, I knew the Law: No gods, no magic, and an­cient heroes are mile­stones to tick off in your rearview mir­ror.

This see­ing through is some­thing one has to achieve, an in­sight one has to dis­cover. You can­not see through Ein­stein just by say­ing, “Ein­stein is mun­dane!” if his work still seems like magic unto you. That would be like declar­ing “Con­scious­ness must re­duce to neu­rons!” with­out hav­ing any idea of how to do it. It’s true, but it doesn’t solve the prob­lem.

I’m not go­ing to tell you that Ein­stein was an or­di­nary bloke over­sold by the me­dia, or that deep down he was a reg­u­lar schmuck just like ev­ery­one else. That would be go­ing much too far. To walk this path, one must ac­quire abil­ities some con­sider to be… un­nat­u­ral. I take a spe­cial joy in do­ing things that peo­ple call “hu­manly im­pos­si­ble”, be­cause it shows that I’m grow­ing up.

Yet the way that you ac­quire mag­i­cal pow­ers is not by be­ing born with them, but by see­ing, with a sud­den shock, that they re­ally are perfectly nor­mal.

This is a gen­eral prin­ci­ple in life.