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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.1

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!

(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 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.

Julian Barbour, The End of Time: The Next Revolution in Physics, 1st ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999). ↩︎

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