Albert Einstein is among the most famous scientists for with good reason. His theories of special relativity and general relativity upended physics and changed our understanding of how the universe works. His discovery of the photoelectric effect (for which he won his only Nobel Prize), and work on Brownian motion and quantum mechanics also were stunning scientific achievements.
Einstein’s Thought Experiments
A strategy that Einstein employed to discover new laws of physics was to engage in what he called “gedankenexperimente” which translates into English as “thought experiments.” Here are a few examples of his thought experiments:
1. Chasing a Beam of Light. As early as age 16, Einstein engaged in a thought experiment of being able to travel so fast that he could catch up to a beam of light and observe it. If you were moving at the same speed as light then the light would in effect be frozen in space which would mean that it would no longer oscillate as required by James Clerk Maxwell’s equations which describe the motion of electromagnetic fields. This conflict between what would happen if you could observe a beam of light while traveling at light speed and the Maxwell equations is what gave rise to Einstein’s epiphany that light always travels at light speed regardless of how fast the observer is moving. This is a foundational aspect of Special Relativity. Read more about this concept in this IFOD: The Strange Result of Light Speed Being a Constant.
2. Standing in a Box. Imagine you are standing in a box — like an elevator car. You have no idea about what is surrounding the box. Then a force occurs that causes you to collapse on the floor. What happened? Did the box hit the ground due to gravity? Or did the box accelerate upward by being pulled? Without seeing outside the box you can’t know which of the two events occurred to produce the force you felt. This thought experiment led to Einstein’s conclusion that there is no difference between gravity and acceleration — they are the same thing. This concept was key in his development of General Relativity.
3. You have a twin who travels on a rocket ship. What would happen if you had a twin and at the moment after birth your twin was launched in a rocket ship traveling near the speed of light and then returned 30 years later? Your twin would have aged less — and thus be younger than you. This is because the twin would have experienced less time relative to you given that he spent 30 years moving faster than you. This thought experiment led to the concept of “time dilation” that is key to Special Relativity.
How to Create Your Own Thought Experiments
You don’t need to be a genius scientist like Albert Einstein to unlock the power of thought experiments in your own life. Each of us can engage in thought experiments with the appropriate mindset and by setting aside some time. Here are some examples of thought experiments that I’ve been engaging in lately:
- How my life would change if I won the lottery. This is an easy thought experiment. Just buy a Powerball or Mega Millions ticket and then spend a bit of time thinking about what you’d want to do with all that money. I’ve previously written on the insights we can gain into how we live our lives by engaging in this thought experiment. You can read that IFOD here: Why Buying Powerball Tickets Is A Great Way to Evaluate Your Life
- Bottlenecks. Our firm has the capacity to take on about three new client families a year. More than that and we run into issues based on how our company is structured and operates. I’ve been thinking lately about what if we wanted to take on eight new client families a year. What would we need to change about our company? How could we still retain our secret sauce with that much growth? It’s a scary thought experiment but has led to some interesting insights about the bottlenecks we have and on which we should address regardless of our amount of growth.
- How to Succeed with Anti-Growth. Staying in the business realm and opposite of the prior thought experiment is one relating to how to successfully shrink. Pretty much every company wants to grow. But growth comes will issues — a bigger company has more moving parts and thus more friction and firms become less efficient and more unwieldly as they grow. An interesting thought experiment in this regard is “how could our firm become better and more profitable while shrinking?” This is a crazy and dizzying thought experiment. It has highlighted for me what things are essential to our company and which things are not.
- What changes would you want for the world if you weren’t you? We all have opinions about politics, economics, taxes, and other policies. But all these opinions are based on our views of the world based on who we are and our own unique personal circumstances. An interesting thought experiment is to try to put yourself in a position of someone totally different than you and think about policy from that perspective. For example, sometimes I think about how I’d want the world to change if I were female, or black, or living in China or Africa, or a child, or elderly, or disabled. In a related thought experiment I imagine that reincarnation is real and I know that after I die I’ll be re-born in opposite circumstances: female and in a poor country with few opportunities. Or maybe I’ll be reincarnated as a cow, chicken, lion, dolphin, or bird. Try this sort of thought experiment out and see how your view of the world changes.
- What would I do if I knew I had a year to live. Imagine you find out that you’ll die a year from today but that you’ll be completely healthy for those last 365 days. How would you spend your time and money? What’s on your bucket list of things you see and do, people to connect with, and impact to make? What would you focus on? Maybe more importantly, what would you stop doing? What relationships would you sever?
Engaging in thought experiments can be scary or strange. Just as they did for Einstein, thought experiments can open up untapped creativity and cause you to view your world in a different way. They can break you out of ruts.
I’ve found that the best place to engage in thought experiments is on walks. I come up with a thought experiment and head out with my dog and just think.