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Would Einstein be ruined by Twitter?

By James Dacey

I must admit that after long days spent in front of the computer screen researching stories, jumping from website to website, checking e-mails, etc, etc, I do sometimes find it hard to settle down in the evening and become fully absorbed in a good book. A real shame because this has always been one of my favourite pastimes and a great way to relax.

This was part of my motivation for going along to a talk last night about how the internet may be changing the way we read and think. The speaker was US writer Nicholas Carr, a long time critic of technological utopianism who caused a stir in 2008 with his article in The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Carr has since developed the arguments into his new book “The Shallows: How the Internet is changing the way we think, read and remember”, which he was describing last night at the Festival of Ideas in Bristol.

Nicholas Carr web sceptic

Carr’s main argument is that with the ever-increasing presence of the Internet in our daily lives we are losing the ability to think deeply and creatively, and to store things in our long-term memory. He believes that the control imposed by search engines and the constant availability of hyperlinks to whisk us away to other websites mean that the internet is starting to rewire our brains. “We have become obsessed with the medium, and the net is remaking people in its own image,” he argued.

It was certainly a fascinating talk and Carr argued his case well, particularly concerning the “plastic not elastic” nature of the brain and how the Internet lies in a rich history of “tools of the mind” including maps, the clock and the printing press. But too often he simply glossed over the positive aspects of the Web, such as the opportunities for online collaboration and the liberation of media now that anyone can comment or blog about their opinions. Then, of course, there is the obvious irony in the fact that many of us found out about his gig through the Festival of Ideas website.

Carr seemed to be harking back to a golden age when all of the great thinkers worked in isolation to formulate their brilliant ideas, aided only by their prolific reading of books. And it got me thinking about whether this was really true for the great scientific thinkers of the last century. Naturally my mind went to the greatest of them all, Albert Einstein, leading me to the question of whether Einstein would have let himself become distracted by the fruits of Web 2.0 such as Facebook and Twitter, and whether this would have had a negative effect on his brilliant mind.

Well, just looking at the clutter in the recently uncovered picture of Einstein’s desk in Princeton taken on the day of his death suggests that the great man didn’t need a work environment completely devoid of distraction. And of course, he had his many other “distractions” outside of science including his violin, his sailing and his sometimes complicated private life involving a divorce and a second marriage to his cousin.

Einstein was clearly a highly social animal who enjoyed networking. There are reports that he regularly attended parties and that he used his fame to arrange meetings with many of the great intellectuals and celebrities of the day, including Picasso and (possibly) Marilyn Monroe. He was also very good at responding to correspondence from fellow professionals and fans. A recent feature article in the print edition of Physics World describes how in 1953 alone Einstein received 832 letters and responded to 476 of them.

So my little gedankenexperiment led me to conclude that yes Einstein probably would have been distracted by e-mails as he fought a losing battle with fanmail, and I’m sure he would have surfed the net regularly to find out about the latest music and cultural affairs. I also believe he would have set up a Twitter profile to keep in touch with his many “followers”. In fact, this kind of tool would have freed up a lot of time for Einstein, allowing him to communicate with his hoards of fans via single “tweets” rather than trying to respond individually. And I’ve no doubt that Einstein’s wickedly clever one-liners would have made him a Twitter sensation.

But whether all this web activity would have proved too much of a distraction for Einstein and damaged his ability to think so profoundly about the nature of space, time and matter…well, who can say? Carr would probably argue yes.

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  1. John Duffield

    Personally I think that if Einstein had the benefit of the internet, physics would be far more advanced today than it is today. There’s another issue here, which tends to be overlooked. In 1905, in his “miracle year”, Einstein’s insight was excellent, but his maths wasn’t. By 1920 his maths was much improved, but his insight seems to have gone out of the window. He really didn’t achieve much after 1920. And by 1927 after the Solvay Conference, he was arguably out of the mainstream.
    I don’t think it was fame and the attendant distractions that damaged his ability to think profoundly about the nature of space, time, and matter. For profound thinking about those things, you need to analyse what’s there, and scrutinise mathematical terms like E and m and c and C. You need to go “top down” from the terms rather than going “bottom-up” like you do when you construct complex mathematical expressions. I think what really cost him his insight wasn’t all the letter-writing. I fear it was the mathematics.

  2. Dileep Sathe

    Einstein and twitter: I am doing research in physics education for 35 years. This is a field in which one has to deal with the most wide variety of people – involving students and parents. One can not just stand by the “accepted” concepts of physics because then students are likely to loose interest in physics. In reality, this has been happening. Consequently, sometimes one has to defy century-old physics. One can catch my line of thinking in a letter (on Carl Wieman’s article) to the editor of CHANGE, May-June 2008, p. 5,… I think, the fore-going information will useful, particularly to those interested in the cognitive research.
    I daily visit… and James Dacey’s blog is my most favorite blog. But such visits do not distract me at all from the chronic and global problems of physics education – which are in my mind for many years. This is why I think that twitter would not have ruined the genius called Albert Einstein.

  3. jjeherrera

    I mostly agree with John, except that it might be fair to question whether Einstein was ever in the mainstream. What actually makes him so unique is that, although he certainly built his ideas upon the common knowledge of his times, they were most original, and even weird in contrast to “the mainstream”. It wasn’t easy for most physicists to come to terms with the relativity theories, and it took some pain to take them as part of the so called mainstream.
    Concerning James’ question, Internet has become very useful to the dissemination of physics, but it has also forced us to become more discriminating. There’s no lack, and I’d even dare to say a proliferation of “weird”, far from “mainstream” ideas, and as you’ve noted in this blog, there’s a growing concern about what arXiv should and shouldn’t publish. Still, my own guess is that Einstein, or any of the great physicists of the first mid 20th Century would have paid little attention to the web. They’d have developed their ideas within their own restricted circle. Even today, in spite of the wide proliferation of physicists and ideas, proportionally speaking, I have the impression that it’s just a few leaders who set the path of what we tend to call “the mainstream”. I recognise I may be wrong though…

  4. Bee

    The question isn’t so much whether Einstein would have been too distracted to think, but whether he would have been able to come to his own conclusions while under constant comment, advice, and criticism of other people. Developing an original idea takes some solitude and, I believe, isolation, otherwise one just tries to accommodate too many other people’s thoughts.
    In any case, you might also like Maggie Jackson’s book “Distracted.” I wrote a review here.

  5. Imre von Soos

    Neither Einstein, nor any other outstanding originator could be influenced, or being even touched in his creative thoughts by Twitter, or Google, or any other manifestation of any medium; although he might very likely use any of them as a source of outside informations to be judged by himself. None would “just try to accommodate other people’s thoughts”, unless he works them all through his own mental processes, forming his own dynamic and actual truth.
    Einstein didn’t need to enter the internet age to be able to make the statement that “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I am not sure about the universe.” or that “Few people are capable of expressing with equanimity opinions which differ from the prejudices of their social environment. Most people are not even capable of forming such opinions.”
    As a matter of fact, never in the human history has anything been originated by the “mainstream”.
    “No great scientific advancement has ever been made by anyone whose thinking has remained kosher. – wrote Physicist Mano Singham – The problem is, the intelligentsia is dominated by danger zone IQ holders, a species capable of enough reason to be useful in maintaining an accepted model, but utterly useless in formulating new ones. Good stewards make crappy iconoclasts. It takes a solid paradigm inventor to shake things up. Given some years after any old model is replaced with a better new model, the stewards defend the new model as rapidly as they defended the old one.”
    “Never underestimate the power of a few committed individuals to change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead
    I doubt that “if Einstein had the benefit of the internet, physics would be far more advanced today than it is today.” He must have been talking from experience when he said that “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.”


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