Einstein Should Be Grateful He Didn't Have Email

By Sean Carroll | April 29, 2010 1:50 pm

I’m reading an interesting new book, Bursts by Albert-Laszlo Barabasi. It’s just released today, but I scored an advance copy by virtue of sharing the same publisher. The basic idea is simple: human behavior obeys power laws! That is, things we occasionally do tend to be clustered together, rather than simply occurring with uniform probability. I can’t vouch for either the truth or usefulness of the claims put forward in the book; we all know that power laws can be slippery things. But the stories related along the way are pretty amusing. (And there’s a very spiffy web page.)

I’ll admit that I jumped right to a chapter in the middle that relates the correspondence between Einstein and Theodor Kaluza in the year 1919 and thereabouts. Kaluza had just come up with the idea that electromagnetism could be unified with gravity by hypothesizing an extra dimension of space — a scenario now known as Kaluza-Klein theory, which underlies all the contemporary excitement about extra dimensions of space. Many crackpots like to assert that our contemporary system of scientific publishing is overly ossified and hierarchical, and that a modern-day Einstein would never be appreciated; the truth is close to the opposite, as back in those days you really needed endorsement from someone established to get your papers published. So Kaluza wrote to Einstein, who was originally enthusiastic about the idea, and they had a flurry of correspondence. Eventually (as I now know) Einstein cooled on the idea, and Kaluza left physics to concentrate on pure mathematics. A couple of years later, after getting nowhere with his own attempts to unify gravity and E&M, Einstein turned back to Kaluza’s approach, and wrote him again, offering to present his paper to the academy.

The book’s interest is actually in the “burstiness” of the correspondence — a flurry of letters back and forth in 1919, then silence, then the conversation resumed in 1921. I was struck by this paragraph, relating the growth of Einstein’s celebrity after the eclipse expedition of 1919 provided evidence supporting general relativity.

[Einstein’s] sudden fame had drastic consequences for his correspondence. In 1919, he received 252 letters and wrote 239, his life still in its subcritical phase, allowing him to reply to most letters with little delay. The next year he wrote many more letters than in any previous year. To the flood of 519 he received, we have record of his having managed to respond to 331 of them, a pace, though formidable, insufficient to keeping on top of his vast correspondence. By 1920 Einstein had moved into the supercritical regime, and he never recovered. The peak came in 1953, two years before his death, when he received 832 letters and responded to 476 of them.

Can you imagine what Einstein would have faced in the email era? One thing is for sure: he was a champion correspondent. He composed approximately 14,500 letters, more than one per day over the course of his adult life.

Not for the first time, Einstein makes me feel like a slacker.

  • Rien

    What, the web page about BRST transformations, brsts.com?


  • Eugene

    Why do you feel like a slacker? I bet you responded to more than 14500 emails by now, and that’s not counting blog posts responses, tweets, and actual snail mail.

    I think *we* would make Einstein feel like a slacker in terms of responding to letters/emails etc. Although I am not sure if I want to actually beat him in terms of correspondence, I mean, there is this matter of actually spending time doing science…

  • Andy

    Apparently Minkowski called Einstein a “lazy dog who never bothered about mathematics at all” – although I have not seen a reliable reference for this quotation – maybe he procrastinated from his work by writing letters.

    However, perhaps laziness is relative – Einstein did seem to achieve quite a bit.

  • http://backreaction.blogspot.com/ Bee

    Nordstrom actually suggested about 10 years before Kaluza to unify gravity with electrodynamics by help of an additional dimension, just that he didn’t know about General Relativity and thus used Newtonian gravity. I have a post on the early extra dimensions here.

  • dennis

    True, Einstein’s correspondence increased so much after he got famous that the editors of the Einstein Papers have had to resort to triage in order to decide which to publish

  • Jim

    How different is that (in effort) from writing comments while grading papers?

  • http://scienceblogs.com/sunclipse/ Blake Stacey

    I can’t vouch for either the truth or usefulness of the claims put forward in the book; we all know that power laws can be slippery things.

    And, of course, “It’s a power law!” is hardly the end of any story, even if it’s true (that is, even if you haven’t fooled yourself by doing sloppy statistics). For example, everybody loves “scale-free networks”: collections of nodes and links in which the probability that a node has k connections falls off as a power law function of k. In the jargon, the “degree” of a node is the number of links it has, so a “scale-free” network has a power-law degree distribution. But the degree distribution does not by itself characterize a network! Two networks can be quite different but have identical degree distributions. For example, consider the “clustering coefficient”, defined as the probability that two neighbours of a node will themselves be directly connected. (It measures the “cliquishness” of the network, in a way.) One can build networks with indistinguishable power-law degree distributions but arbitrarily different clustering coefficients.

    The NetworkX Python module has a built-in function to do just this: powerlaw_cluster_graph().

  • http://cs.unm.edu/~aaron/blog/ Aaron Clauset

    A couple of years ago, Murray Gell-Mann, who, like me, works at the Santa Fe Institute, asked me to help him with his email; he was having a problem getting his spam filter set up on Apple’s Mail client. So, I had the rare privilege of getting to sift through his Inbox as we tried to sort the spam from the non-spam. Needless to say, there were thousands of messages in it, most of them unread. And, there was the usual spam, of course, but unlike my Inbox, there were also dozens (probably hundreds actually) of letters from cranks. People claiming to have overturned his work on the Standard Model. Other people claiming to have overturned various laws of thermodynamics. Some people wanted Murray to look at their papers or to somehow endorse their crazy ideas. None of these people were in academia. This must have been going on for years (decades?) because Murray remembered many of them and as I went through each email, reading the sender’s name and maybe a few words of the body, he would briefly tell me about them and their crackpot ideas. Some of these people I think he had once responded to. Many of them seemed to send him some new crackpot idea every other week. If Einstein had had email, I imagine it would have been much the same.

    p.s. Thanks for the shout out. One of my favorite papers from the “scale free” network hoopla is R. Tanaka “Scale-Rich Metabolic Networks.” PRL 94 (2005), and not just for the catchy title.

  • Kathy Bramley

    I am very glad I got a thoughtful acknowledgement of my thinking in an e-mail back from Mr Barabasi when I e-mailed about the application of network science to Haitian disaster relief. But also sad I didn’t answer back. I was worried about being presumptious but felt tempted to write lots of clarification and further thought. I felt very honoured but wasn’t sure how to answer, without being an unwarranted spammer, my fear of not communicating well my intention to lobby him as a gatekeeper/hub. I was inspired by network theory- especicially the package experiment and viral marketing theory I had seen/heard of to think that creative speculative messaging of respected experts like him might be a way to break through the hardpan of in-bred thinking patterns – redemocratise – in international elites mostly linked to each other by utilising the power of the internet/media/ideas network to find him and send my ideas. I was thinking of myself as one processor in the super-computer of all the people out there networked up and thinking. It sort of works like this in a smaller way in the scientific world anyway – the serendipity of inspiration and collaboration that tips over any primed mental areas into making new links.
    The idea of ‘gatekeepers’ is used in community work, especially rural communities or others where there is a stronger sense of community. Sometimes indirect work with gatekeepers can miss crucial groups of people so direct contact is a good method, just very expensive and labour intensive; but often it is a very powerful way to spread a message. I see parallels with small worlds theory. I wonder whether network scientists can use their ken to find or borrow/unify existing theory on striking this balance of between manageable in-boxes, dismissing spam but having good-guy accessibility, between low order and high order connections, between complusive helpfulness/quest of approval-seeking/overcompensating schema (psychology) and healthy self-protection, for the benefit of progress and their own happiness, nevermind sanity!

  • Kathy Bramley

    I think I slightly misrepresented community work – I covered it at undergraduate level a long time ago and am still not a graduate! Direct community work is face to face, indirect methodologies work with community organisations, often over the phone and through correspondance. Gatekeepers come into the frame crucially in both forms and particularly intermediary forms. I think. I haven’t referred back/re-researched.


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .


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