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The Myth of the "Next Einstein"

Einstein’s fame arose from a perfect storm of science, culture, and personality, says physicist Paul Halpern.

ByPaul HalpernThe Nature of RealityThe Nature of Reality
The Myth of the "Next Einstein"

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Adapted from Einstein’s Dice and Schrödinger’s Cat
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by Paul Halpern. Courtesy Basic Books, the Perseus Books Group.

Who will be the next Einstein? Will his ingenious contributions ever be surpassed? Is there anyone brilliant enough to complete his dream of a unified theory of nature? Despite being an accomplished physicist, Nobel laureate, and Renaissance man, Einstein’s sometime ally, sometime adversary Erwin Schrödinger never came close to Einstein’s fame internationally. If anything, his cat has taken all the glory—at least as a cultural meme.

Albert Einstein in 1921, adapted from a photograph by Ferdinand Schmutzer. Public domain

Though Einstein was his collaborator and mentor, Schrödinger briefly imagined himself successor to the throne when, in January 1947, he thought he had found a theory of everything. Jumping the gun, he announced to the Royal Irish Academy that his new General Unitary Theory superseded Einstein’s general theory of relativity. The international press picked up on Schrödinger’s startling announcement, asking if he might have fulfilled Einstein’s quest. However, Schrödinger’s unification attempt turned out, like so many others, to be a false start, with no experimental evidence to support it.

Schrödinger certainly hasn’t been the only one to try to fill Einstein’s shoes. Since 1919, when the public first tasted the theory of relativity through the announcement of the solar eclipse measurements, it has had an insatiable appetite for news about Einstein and possible successors. While he was alive, as we’ve seen, the press trumpeted every unified field theory he proposed as if it were a major breakthrough. After his death, stories about brilliant individuals tantalizingly close to completing his mission have continued to make headlines. All in all, Einstein, his unfinished quest, and the question of who might inherit his throne have served as touchstones for almost a century.

Research scientists know that progress in any field is usually incremental, taking place over years or even decades. Groundbreaking discoveries are few and far between. Often a scientist needs to be lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to make a mark. Most scientific research today is completed by large teams, rather than by single individuals.

Yet the myth persists of the lone genius changing everything around us. Type “next Einstein” into any Internet search engine and expect to be bombarded with results—everything from recipes for educational success to claims made in resumes or personal ads. Here are a few assorted examples of recent media musings: Will the next Einstein be a “ surfer dude ”? Is he a child prodigy with an exceptional IQ? What if the next Einstein is a computer ? Could a smartphone application identify him? Or might an old-fashioned DVD designed for little ones do the trick? As a 2009 New York Times headline advised with tongue firmly in cheek, “ No Einstein in Your Crib? Get a Refund!

The formula that produced Einstein was a perfect match between crucial scientific problems that demanded radical solutions, exceptional insights that often overturned commonly held beliefs, an ironically photogenic visage (who knew that rumpled sweaters, a Brillo pad mustache, and a mop of unruly gray hair could be so compelling?), and the omnipresent glare of the camera. His rise to fame coincided, more or less, with the golden age of Hollywood, when cinematic newsreels projected the latest fashions, feats, and foibles of celebrities. Like Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, the Barrymores, and countless other stars of the cinema in the twenties, thirties, and forties, Einstein traipsed across the screens of thousands of Main Street movie houses. The public viewed him stopping on his strolls to wave to admirers, giving speeches about current affairs, headlining benefits for various charities, and occasionally reporting progress in his research. Hungry to fill their quota of human interest stories, reporters lapped up news about the German Jewish scientist like scrawny cats with spilled milk.

It is not clear if that formula will ever be repeated. For one thing, there has been an explosion of publications. Many theories vie for prominence—far more than in the days of Einstein and Schrödinger. Yet the energies required to test these approaches have required increasingly expensive and time-consuming projects, such as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) near Geneva, Switzerland. Unlike, for example, the eclipse measurements, experimental science has generally proceeded far more slowly and cautiously, requiring far greater quantities of data before announcing results. In high-energy physics, teams typically involve hundreds of researchers rather than lone pioneers. At the same time, the media have diversified, so not everyone’s eyes are fixed on the same scientific celebrities.

Peter Higgs, one of the recipients of the 2013 Nobel Prize in physics, has become a rare contemporary example of a well-known, accomplished theorist. Yet his name recognition hardly rivals Einstein’s. The particle named after him, the Higgs boson, has come to be known colloquially as the “God particle.” When it was discovered in 2012 at the LHC, much of his press coverage was shared with a divine being. (To India’s dismay, its native son Satyendra Bose hardly got any mention.)

As the LHC is restarted with collision energies amped up to 13 TeV, the physics community will be sifting through its collected data searching for hints of new theories. If interesting results are found, undoubtedly eager theorists will propose new unification ideas. Let’s hope that the media will look at these suggestions with a critical eye and wait for solid evidence, if it emerges, before declaring that the next Einstein has arrived.

This project/research was supported by grant number FQXi-RFP-1822 from the Foundational Questions Institute and Fetzer Franklin Fund, a donor-advised fund of Silicon Valley Community Foundation.