We Can Stop Dissecting Einstein’s Brain Now

Albert and Mileva Einstein, 1912.
Albert and Mileva Einstein, 1912.

Looking for the wellspring of Albert Einstein’s genius? Set down that slide of his brain.

Science just validated another one of the ideas posited in the celebrated papers Einstein published in 1905.

After his death in 1955, Einstein’s brain was dissected in the hope that we could find the source of his genius (in terms of brain architecture, he had the dyslexic advantage). While studying synapses couldn’t hurt (we still know surprisingly little about the human brain), when it comes to discovering what makes creativity flourish, there are more instructive places for us to look.

If you make a living from your ideas, what I’m about to explain will seem as intuitively obvious as gravity was to Newton when that apple fell on his head.

As a creative person and scientist, Einstein peaked early. In 1905, at the age of 26, he published four amazing papers that collectively formed the foundation of modern physics. It was a unique event in the history of science, so extraordinary that the papers are referred to in Latin as the Annus mirabilis papers—meaning “extraordinary year” or “miracle year.”

When he published these papers, Einstein was working as a patent clerk. He was just five years out of college.

When you have a genius IQ and you spend your days working as a patent clerk—or in any day job—how you spend your off hours can mean the difference between achieving a professional breakthrough and living the rest of your life in relative obscurity.

What did Einstein do when he wasn’t at work? He spent a lot of time talking to someone—his wife, Mileva.

What’s so unique about that? Most of us with significant others spend the bulk of our non-working hours with that person.

What was unique for Einstein was that his wife was a trained physicist, four years his senior.

When you’re a creative professional (or an aspiring one, as Einstein was in his 20s) and your spouse is as intimately familiar with the world of your ideas as she is with your heart and mind, it is a huge advantage.

If you’re not a creative person, turn to any creative professional couples you know—where both people work in the same or very similar endeavors—and ask them how helpful it is to be in such a relationship.

Einstein had such a relationship from 1897 to 1919 with Mileva Marić. Like Albert, Mileva aspired to be a physicist. Unlike Albert, she was a woman, and therefore (given the times) her professional aspirations were off the table.

Marić studied mathematics and physics at the same university as Einstein. Their thesis papers were on the same subject. She was the only woman in the class.

Many letters between Einstein and Marić survive. In a letter to Marić in 1901, Einstein wrote, ”How happy and proud I will be when the two of us together will have brought our work on the relative motion to a victorious conclusion!”

They had their first child in 1902. They were married in 1903 and had a second child in 1904. The Annus mirabilis papers were published in 1905. Their third child was born in 1910.

In 1919, Einstein divorced Mileva and married his cousin Elsa. Mileva was left to raise the children she and Albert had together, one of whom was diagnosed with schizophrenia and required expensive and exhaustive care.

After winning the Nobel Prize in 1921 for the breakthrough papers of 1905, Einstein became an international celebrity. He continued to work, but his most important contributions to science were rooted in the papers published when he and Mileva were living together, talking excitedly about relative motion.

It’s painfully obvious that Mileva got the short end of the stick, and what makes it more acute is the knowledge that we haven’t moved the needle that much in the last century when it comes to women fulfilling their full potential. How much more might humanity have benefitted if Mileva could have continued to work, with or without Einstein as a partner?

When it comes to making great leaps of thought, people who work with ideas know the vital importance of process—much has been written about producing the best results by emphasizing process over product. Sadly, we may never know what Mileva’s exact contribution was to the product—the 1905 papers—but there’s no doubt she was an essential part of the process of developing those ideas and writing those papers.

If we’re looking for the reason Einstein was able to conceive such breakthrough ideas in his 20s, we can stop looking merely at slides of his brain. We can start looking at all the ways creative genius flourishes when ideas can be spoken, understood, embraced, and enhanced by intimately connected minds.

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