How failure helped Einstein


I’m about halfway through Einstein’s biography by Walter Isaacson and one of the most fascinating stories is about the initial failure to carry out the experimentation to prove his 1911 paper, “On the Influence of Gravity on the Propagation of Light.” Einstein had organized an expedition to test his theories which “calculated that light would undergo a deflection of 0.85 arc-second when it passed near the sun,” the same “as would be predicted by an emission theory such as Newton’s that treated light as particles.” He rallied hard to get funding for an astronomer named Erwin Freundhlich to test it during the next eclipse in Crimea in 1914. “Einstein was so eager to have his theory tested… that, when it seemed there might be no money for such an expedition, he offered to pay part of the costs himself.” Fortunately, he was able to get funding, but then, WWI broke out and Freundlich ended up being captured by the Russians. Though he was released without harm a few weeks later, they’d missed their window of opportunity to prove Einstein’s theory.

Ironically, this ended up being the best thing for him as his theory was actually inaccurate. In the new field equations he “formulated at the end of 1915,” he “had come up with twice that deflection” to about 1.7 arc-seconds.” As Isaacson states: “If Freundlich had succeeded in 1914, Einstein might have been publicly proven wrong.”


Even though it took a few extra years to prove his theory (1919 to be exact, which is about 8 years and in current times, seems like forever), it ended up being the best thing for Einstein because it helped him to expand and develop the theory, even possibly avoid public humiliation and a huge loss of credibility.

With the end of the year almost upon us, I’ve thought a lot about timing, how things often don’t happen as fast as we’d like, while other things that we love and wish could endure forever don’t last. Sometimes, we wonder why something doesn’t happen the way it does, only to realize it was actually for the best. I hope everyone has a fruitful and exciting new year. Don’t rush things, enjoy the moment, and if you’re a writer or artist, hope you have a great new year of creating.


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