Persistence, Not Genius, Is the Reason We Know Einstein’s Name
In 1905, Albert Einstein's mother thought he was a genius, his sister thought he was a genius, his father thought he was a genius – but that was about it, says author David Bodanis.
David Bodanis was born in Chicago, lived in France for a decade, and makes his home in London. He studied mathematics, physics and history at the University of Chicago, and for many years taught the "Intellectual Tool-Kit" course at Oxford University. He is fascinated by story-telling, and the power of ideas. As an author his books include the New York Times bestselling THE SECRET HOUSE (1986); the bestselling and Samuel Johnson Prize longlisted E=MC2 (2001), which has been translated into 28 languages, was turned into a Channel 4/PBS documentary, and a ballet at Sadler's Wells (winning the Southbank Award for Best British Dance of 2010); the Royal Society Science Book of the Year Prize winner ELECTRIC UNIVERSE (2006); and the BBC Book of the Week - also featured on the cover of The Economist - PASSIONATE MINDS (2007). His newest work, EINSTEIN’S GREATEST MISTAKE, will be published in 2016. As a futurist and business advisor, he has worked for the Royal Dutch Shell Scenario Prediction unit, modelling economic futures, as well as for the future planning unit at the World Economic Forum. He has been a popular speaker at TED conferences and at Davos, and most recently helped run an international study for the UK Treasury on the future of High-Frequency Trading. He has published in the Financial Times, the Guardian, and the New York Times, and appeared on Newsnight, Start the Week, and other programs. When not slumped in front of a laptop, he has been known to attempt kickboxing, with highly variable results.
David Bodanis was born in Chicago, lived in France for a decade, and makes his home in London. He studied mathematics, physics and history at the University of Chicago, and for many years taught the "Intellectual Tool-Kit" course at Oxford University. He is fascinated by story-telling, and the power of ideas.
As an author his books include the New York Times bestselling THE SECRET HOUSE (1986); the bestselling and Samuel Johnson Prize longlisted E=MC2 (2001), which has been translated into 28 languages, was turned into a Channel 4/PBS documentary, and a ballet at Sadler's Wells (winning the Southbank Award for Best British Dance of 2010); the Royal Society Science Book of the Year Prize winner ELECTRIC UNIVERSE (2006); and the BBC Book of the Week - also featured on the cover of The Economist - PASSIONATE MINDS (2007). His newest work, EINSTEIN’S GREATEST MISTAKE, will be published in 2016.
As a futurist and business advisor, he has worked for the Royal Dutch Shell Scenario Prediction unit, modelling economic futures, as well as for the future planning unit at the World Economic Forum. He has been a popular speaker at TED conferences and at Davos, and most recently helped run an international study for the UK Treasury on the future of High-Frequency Trading. He has published in the Financial Times, the Guardian, and the New York Times, and appeared on Newsnight, Start the Week, and other programs. When not slumped in front of a laptop, he has been known to attempt kickboxing, with highly variable results.
David Bodanis: 1905 Albert Einstein's mother thought he was a genius; his sister thought he was a genius; his father thought he was a genius, but he was stuck in the patent office in Bern Switzerland and nobody else thought he was a genius at all. We had mouthed off to his professor at his university. He didn't get any good job. His department of theoretical physics was the top drawer of his desk and he would slam it close. And he had tried all sorts of things. He was about 25/26, we had tried lots of ideas while he was stuck at the patent office. Nothing had really come together. And then suddenly in the spring of 1905 it was like a storm burst in his head. He poured out one of paper after another about four of them were worthy of the Nobel Prize. And the final two were Special Relativity and E=mc2.
Einstein once said he wasn't smarter than other people but he said I have the persistence of a mule. And he was really honest about it. When he was a little kid and he made card castles he'd make layer after layer after layer of card castles and if they blew down well he'd take a deep breath and build it up again. So he knew he wanted to understand how the universe worked. He'd always thought the universe was like a series of books waiting on a shelf that if we were really lucky we could take them down and look inside and there would be all the truths of the universe inside there. It might be the Sermon on the Mount for Matthew, it might be what he later discovered things like E=mc2, and most of the time we couldn't look in those books, but occasional he we could and that's what drove him. All through his early 20s he was happily married at the beginning to a really hot young Serbian physics students the only woman in his class and Polytech in Zürich And they had great dreams of maybe becoming professors together, but reality got in the way. He was stuck at the patent office and until 1905 when he was 25/26, he couldn't get any fresh ideas and he and his wife they begin slowly to drift apart. They didn't have money for childcare. She was stuck at home taking care of the kids. She couldn't really participate in his work.
In 1905 he did have this epiphany or or series of epiphanies. He had great, great achievements and he thought he was home clear, but nothing happened. The great professors in Germany one or two of them monitored his work but he couldn't get a job. He applied at one point to teach in a high school in Switzerland and he submitted as a justification for teaching science in high school the theory of relativity E=mc2 and a few other things like that. He was rejected. This was Switzerland. He hadn't done the proper forms. They weren't properly typed and he stayed in the patent office.
Some people take offense very easily. They get a little negative look and they think oh well people don't like to me. Einstein was not like that and he had good reason to think that people didn't like him. In 1920 in Germany the opera house in Berlin was taken over by an anti-Einstein rally. There was swastikas in the front row. This wasn't Arian science, this was Jewish science, it had to be wrong. And then horribly in 1933 his books were burned on the streets in Germany and they weren't just burned by uneducated mobs in the middle of nowhere, the greatest university the world had known was Gertingen in Germany at the time and the students there, the students were so caught up in what was happening that they dragged Einstein's books and books of other people and they burned them in huge piles right in the center in Berlin, in Gertingen and in other places. Luckily by then Einstein was out of the country. Some of the major newspapers and magazines were charging him with they said they had to kill him. It's a variation they didn't just say lock him up, they said the next stage. You start with one stage you go to the next. Because he was famous he managed to get to America. He lived safely in Princeton New Jersey after that. But he was also a noble man and he realized he had to save a lot of people. So he used a huge amount of his income and other funds that he raised to get people who were in danger of death out of harm's way into the safety of America. And there's some lessons for us today.
So after the first world war were vast numbers of people had died and machine gunned for no purpose in Western Europe and, of course, even huge battles also in Eastern Europe, a great number of people thought what could be worth it? What could be worth sending millions of young men rushing into machine guns which are firing our way and killing them? So Einstein thought no war is going to be worth it. Well, in the late 1930s with the rise of Hitler he changed his mind. He thought this is different. This could actually destroy all civilization so he didn't like it but he says yeah we have to defend ourselves; we have to stop this terrible thing. He himself was not allowed to work on the atomic bomb. The FBI thought he was a security risk, in fact he wasn't a security risk but the FBI, as usual, was being very, very cautious. Also much of the atomic bomb, although intellectually owes the ideas to Einstein, a lot of it was practical engineering and he wasn't an engineer. He was good with his hands and building things but he wasn't a practical engineer. So he actually wasn't involved in the building of the bomb. And then in 1945 about a day after it was dropped on her Hiroshima when the news finally reached America he was on holiday in Eastern Long Island. He liked boating. His secretary Helen Dukas woke him up she said, "Professor, there's this terrible news." She told him what had happened then he woke up and he said to her, "If I had known I wouldn't have lifted a finger."
Einstein had three great character traits. "I might not be more skilled than other scientists," he liked to say, "but I have the persistence of a mule." If he built a house of cards and it came crashing down, young Einstein would exhale and start again, says biographer David Bodanis. He languished for many years in a patent office in Switzerland, unable to get a job as a high-school teacher, while in the top drawer of his desk were four recently completed papers – two of which were Special Relativity and E=mc2. He pressed on with his work until people noticed. Secondly, Einstein had a thick skin. One bad whisper can shatter most mere mortals, but in 1920 there was an anti-Einstein rally at the Opera House in Berlin, where people opposed to "Jewish science". Later still, in 1933, highly educated students from Göttingen, one of the greatest university in the world at the time, burned his books. Thirdly, he was inherently noble. He had a great conscience for his fellow humans, and used a huge amount of his income and other raised money to get people out of Germany and safely to America. Despite having thick skin, he was not callous – he had great sensitivity for humanity as a whole. Though the FBI did not let him be part of the team that built the atom bomb, Einstein’s work paved the way for the technology. When he heard the U.S. had dropped the bomb on Japan, he was grief stricken, and said "If I had known I wouldn't have lifted a finger." David Bodanis' most recent book is Einstein’s Greatest Mistake.
David Bodanis' most recent book is Einstein’s Greatest Mistake.
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A new episode of "Your Brain on Money" illuminates the strange world of consumer behavior and explores how brands can wreak havoc on our ability to make rational decisions.
- Effective branding can not only change how you feel about a company, it can actually change how your brain is wired.
- Our new series "Your Brain on Money," created in partnership with Million Stories, recently explored the surprising ways brands can affect our behavior.
- Brands aren't going away. But you can make smarter decisions by slowing down and asking yourself why you're making a particular purchase.
How Apple and Nike have branded your brain | Your Brain on Money | Big Think youtu.be
Brands can manipulate our brains in surprisingly profound ways. They can change how we conceptualize ourselves and how we broadcast our identities out to the social world. They can make us feel emotions that have nothing to do with the functions of their products. And they can even sort us into tribes.
To grasp the power of brands, look to Apple. In the 1990s, the company was struggling to compete with Microsoft over the personal computer market. Despite flirting with bankruptcy in the mid-1990s, Apple turned itself around to eventually become the most valuable company in the world.
That early-stage success wasn't due to superior products.
"People talk about technology, but Apple was a marketing company," John Sculley, a former Apple marketing executive, told The Guardian in 1997. "It was the marketing company of the decade."
So, how exactly does branding make people willing to wait hours in line to buy a $1,000 smartphone, or pay exorbitant prices for a pair of sneakers?
Branding and the brain
For more than a century, brands have capitalized on the fact that effective marketing is much more than simply touting the merits of a product. Some ads have nothing to do with the product at all. In 1871, for example, Pearl Tobacco started advertising their cigarettes through branded posters and trading cards that featured exposed women, a trend that continues to this day.
It's crude, sure. But research shows that it's also remarkably effective, even on monkeys. Why? The answer seems to center on how our brains pay special attention to information from the social world.
"In theory, ads that associate sex or status with specific brands or products activate the brain mechanisms that prioritize social information, and turning on this switch may bias us toward the product," wrote neuroscience professor Michael Platt for Scientific American.
Brands can burrow themselves deep into our subconscious. Through ad campaigns, brands can form a web of associations and memories in our brains. When these connections are robust and positive, it can change our behavior, nudging us to make "no-brainer" purchases when we encounter the brand at the store.
It's a marketing principle that's related to the work of Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist and economist who won the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. In his book "Thinking Fast and Slow", Kahneman separates thinking into two broad categories, or systems:
- System 1 is fast and automatic, requiring little effort or voluntary control.
- System 2 is slow and requires subjective deliberation and logic.
Brands that tap into "system 1" are likely to dominate the competition. After all, it's far easier for us as consumers to automatically reach for a familiar brand than it is to analyze all of the available information and make an informed choice. Still, the most successful brands can have an even deeper impact on our psychology, one that causes us to conceptualize them as something like a family member.
A peculiar relationship with brands
Apple has one of the most loyal customer bases in the world, with its brand loyalty hitting an all-time high earlier this year, according to a SellCell survey of more than 5,000 U.S.-based smartphone users.
Qualitatively, how does that loyalty compare to Samsung users? To find out, Platt and his team conducted a study in which functional magnetic resonance imaging scanned the brains of Samsung and Apple users as they viewed positive, negative, and neutral news about each company. The results revealed stark differences between the two groups, as Platt wrote in "The Leader's Brain":
"Apple users showed empathy for their own brand: The reward-related areas of the brain were activated by good news about Apple, and the pain and negative feeling parts of the brain were activated by bad news. They were neutral about any kind of Samsung news. This is exactly what we see when people empathize with other people—particularly their family and friends—but don't feel the joy and pain of people they don't know."
Meanwhile, Samsung users didn't show any significant pain- or pleasure-related brain activity when they saw good or bad news about the company.
"Interestingly, though, the pain areas were activated by good news about Apple, and the reward areas were activated by bad news about the rival company—some serious schadenfreude, or "reverse empathy," Platt wrote.
The results suggest a fundamental difference between the brands: Apple has formed strong emotional and social connections with consumers, Samsung has not.
Brands and the self
Does having a strong connection with a brand justify paying higher prices for their products? Maybe. You could have a strong connection with Apple or Nike and simultaneously think the quality of their products justifies the price.
But beyond product quality lies identity. People have long used objects and clothing to express themselves and signal their affiliation with groups. From prehistoric seashell jewelry to Air Jordans, the things people wear and associate with signal a lot of information about how they conceptualize themselves.
Since the 1950s, researchers have examined the relationship between self-image and brand preferences. This body of research has generally found that consumers tend to prefer brands whose products fit well with their self-image, a concept known as self-image congruity.
By choosing brands that don't disrupt their self-image, consumers are able not only to express themselves personally, but also broadcast a specific version of themselves into the social world. That might sound self-involved. But on the other hand, humans are social creatures who use information from the social world to make decisions, so it's virtually impossible for us not to make inferences about people based on how they present themselves.
Americus Reed II, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania, told Big Think:
"When I make choices about different brands, I'm choosing to create an identity. When I put that shirt on, when I put that shirt on — those jeans, that hat — someone is going to form an impression about what I'm about. So, if I'm choosing Nike over Under Armour, I'm choosing a kind of different way to express affiliation with sport. The Nike thing is about performance. The Under Armour thing is about the underdog. I have to choose which of these different conceptual pathways is most consistent with where I am in my life."
Making smarter decisions
Brands may have some power over us when we're facing a purchasing decision. So, considering brands aren't going away, what can we do to make better choices? The best strategy might be to slow down and try to avoid making "automatic" purchasing decisions that are characteristic of Kahneman's fast "system 1" mode of thinking.
"I think it's important to always pause and think a little bit about, "Okay, why am I buying this product?" Platt said.
As for getting out of the brand game altogether? Good luck.
"I've heard lots of people push back and say, "I'm not into brands,"" Reed II said. "I take a very different view. In some senses, they're not doing anything different than what someone who affiliates with a brand is doing. They have a brand. It's just an anti-brand brand."
Powerful branding can not only change how you feel about a company, it can actually change how your brain is wired.
- Powerful branding can not only change how you feel about a company, it can actually change how your brain is wired.
- "We love to think of ourselves as rational. That's not how it works," says UPenn professor Americus Reed II about our habits (both conscious and subconscious) of paying more for items based primarily on the brand name. Effective marketing causes the consumer to link brands like Apple and Nike with their own identity, and that strong attachment goes deeper than receipts.
- Using MRI, professor and neuroscientist Michael Platt and his team were able to see this at play. When reacting to good or bad news about the brand, Samsung users didn't have positive or negative brain responses, yet they did have "reverse empathy" for bad news about Apple. Meanwhile, Apple users showed a "brain empathy response for Apple that was exactly what you'd see in the way you would respond to somebody in your family."
It marks a breakthrough in using gene editing to treat diseases.
This article was originally published by our sister site, Freethink.
For the first time, researchers appear to have effectively treated a genetic disorder by directly injecting a CRISPR therapy into patients' bloodstreams — overcoming one of the biggest hurdles to curing diseases with the gene editing technology.
The therapy appears to be astonishingly effective, editing nearly every cell in the liver to stop a disease-causing mutation.
The challenge: CRISPR gives us the ability to correct genetic mutations, and given that such mutations are responsible for more than 6,000 human diseases, the tech has the potential to dramatically improve human health.
One way to use CRISPR to treat diseases is to remove affected cells from a patient, edit out the mutation in the lab, and place the cells back in the body to replicate — that's how one team functionally cured people with the blood disorder sickle cell anemia, editing and then infusing bone marrow cells.
Bone marrow is a special case, though, and many mutations cause disease in organs that are harder to fix.
Another option is to insert the CRISPR system itself into the body so that it can make edits directly in the affected organs (that's only been attempted once, in an ongoing study in which people had a CRISPR therapy injected into their eyes to treat a rare vision disorder).
Injecting a CRISPR therapy right into the bloodstream has been a problem, though, because the therapy has to find the right cells to edit. An inherited mutation will be in the DNA of every cell of your body, but if it only causes disease in the liver, you don't want your therapy being used up in the pancreas or kidneys.
A new CRISPR therapy: Now, researchers from Intellia Therapeutics and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals have demonstrated for the first time that a CRISPR therapy delivered into the bloodstream can travel to desired tissues to make edits.
We can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically.
"While these are early data, they show us that we can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically so far, which is being able to deliver it systemically and get it to the right place," she continued.
What they did: During a phase 1 clinical trial, Intellia researchers injected a CRISPR therapy dubbed NTLA-2001 into the bloodstreams of six people with a rare, potentially fatal genetic disorder called transthyretin amyloidosis.
The livers of people with transthyretin amyloidosis produce a destructive protein, and the CRISPR therapy was designed to target the gene that makes the protein and halt its production. After just one injection of NTLA-2001, the three patients given a higher dose saw their levels of the protein drop by 80% to 96%.
A better option: The CRISPR therapy produced only mild adverse effects and did lower the protein levels, but we don't know yet if the effect will be permanent. It'll also be a few months before we know if the therapy can alleviate the symptoms of transthyretin amyloidosis.
This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine.
If everything goes as hoped, though, NTLA-2001 could one day offer a better treatment option for transthyretin amyloidosis than a currently approved medication, patisiran, which only reduces toxic protein levels by 81% and must be injected regularly.
Looking ahead: Even more exciting than NTLA-2001's potential impact on transthyretin amyloidosis, though, is the knowledge that we may be able to use CRISPR injections to treat other genetic disorders that are difficult to target directly, such as heart or brain diseases.
"This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine," Fyodor Urnov, a UC Berkeley professor of genetics, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR. "We as a species are watching this remarkable new show called: our gene-edited future."
Evolution proves to be just about as ingenious as Nikola Tesla
- For the first time, scientists developed 3D scans of shark intestines to learn how they digest what they eat.
- The scans reveal an intestinal structure that looks awfully familiar — it looks like a Tesla valve.
- The structure may allow sharks to better survive long breaks between feasts.
Considering how much sharks are feared by humans, it is a bit of a surprise that scientists don't know much about the predators. For example, until recently, sharks were thought to be solitary creatures searching the seas for food on their own. Now it appears that some sharks are quite social.
Another mystery is how these prehistoric swimming and eating machines digest food. Although scientists have made 2D sketches of captured sharks' digestive systems based on dissections, there is a limit to what can be learned in this way. Professor Adam Summers at University of Washington's Friday Harbor Labs says:
"Intestines are so complex, with so many overlapping layers, that dissection destroys the context and connectivity of the tissue. It would be like trying to understand what was reported in a newspaper by taking scissors to a rolled-up copy. The story just won't hang together."
Summers is co-author of a new study that has produced the first 3D scans of a shark's intestines, which turns out to have a strange, corkscrew structure. What's even more bizarre is that it resembles the amazing one-way valve designed by inventor Nikola Tesla in 1920. The research is published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
What a 3D model reveals
Video: Pacific spiny dogfish intestine youtu.be
According to the study's lead author Samantha Leigh, "It's high time that some modern technology was used to look at these really amazing spiral intestines of sharks. We developed a new method to digitally scan these tissues and now can look at the soft tissues in such great detail without having to slice into them."
"CT scanning is one of the only ways to understand the shape of shark intestines in three dimensions," adds Summers. The researchers scanned the intestines of nearly three dozen different shark species.
It is believed that sharks go for extended periods — days or even weeks — between big meals. The scans reveal that food passes slowly through the intestine, affording sharks' digestive system the time to fully extract its nutrient value. The researchers hypothesize that such a slow digestive process may also require less energy.
It could be that this slow digestion is more susceptible to back flow given that the momentum of digested food through the tract must be minimal. Perhaps that is why sharks evolved something so similar to a Tesla valve.
What is Tesla's valve doing there?
Above, a Tesla valve. Below, a shark intestine.Credit: Samantha Leigh / California State University, Domi
Tesla's "valvular conduit," or what the world now calls a "Tesla valve," is a one-way valve with no moving parts. Its brilliance is based in fluid dynamics and only now coming to be fully appreciated. Essentially, a series of teardrop-shaped loops arranged along the length of the valve allow water to flow easily in one direction but not in the other. Modern tests reveal that at low flow rates, water can travel through the valve either way, but at high flow rates, the design kicks in. According to mathematician Leif Ristroph:
"Crucially, this turn-on comes with the generation of turbulent flows in the reverse direction, which 'plug' the pipe with vortices and disrupting currents. Moreover, the turbulence appears at far lower flow rates than have ever previously been observed for pipes of more standard shapes — up to 20 times lower speed than conventional turbulence in a cylindrical pipe or tube. This shows the power it has to control flows, which could be used in many applications."
A deeper dive
Summers suggests the scans are just the beginning. "The vast majority of shark species, and the majority of their physiology, are completely unknown," says Summers, adding that "every single natural history observation, internal visualization, and anatomical investigation shows us things we could not have guessed at."
To this end, the researchers plan to use 3D printing to produce models through which they can observe the behavior of different substances passing through them — after all, sharks typically eat fish, invertebrates, mammals, and seagrass. They also plan to explore with engineers ways in which the shark intestine design could be used industrially, perhaps for the treatment of wastewater or for filtering microplastics.
It could fairly be said, though, that Nikola Tesla was 100 years ahead of them.