Humanizing Einstein

Humanizing Einstein

Einstein’s relativity paper

If you never read Einstein’s original paper on relativity, please check the above link. Here is the personal story of how I first got to read the paper and the impression it left on me. After doing my undergraduate in electrical engineering at an Indian college (IIT), I was sufficiently bored with ICs and logic gates, and decided to try something new for grad school. I was always interested in theoretical physics, but theoretical physicists were probably not interested in a logic-circuit person (did not bother to check).

After an extensive search, I found an electrical engineering professor, who for all practical purposes was a self-taught theoretical physicist working on physics-related problems. He gave me a challenging theoretical puzzle to solve, which combined physics and chemistry. However, I knew neither physics nor chemistry.

Learning the chemistry part did not turn out to be that difficult. I started to take classes on molecular crystal structure and point groups with a very good professor, who was also our collaborator. Learning quantum physics was tad more difficult, because all introductory books seemed to have made the subject more complex by trying to be simple. The concepts were intuitively clear as long as I did not need to venture out to solve unusual problems. That was no fun, because trying to compute electrical current in an organic molecule tied between two large solids was indeed an unusual problem for all physics books. The problem was neither ‘solid state physics’, nor pure ‘quantum physics’ or ‘quantum chemistry’. So, textbooks were of no help to me.

Being frustrated, one day I went to the library and started to pull all original papers from 1910s and 1920s to track how the field progressed. That was indeed much easier, because the original authors were far more logical and precise than introductory books explaining quantum physics to simpletons. Eistein’s paper (linked above) really changed my perception of the person, because I could easily see the logical flow of where he started and what he derived. He felt far more human than the media descriptions. That was of great help for a newbie trying to understand a complex field by reading papers and review articles.

I finally managed to solve the problem of current transport through small organic molecules, and our paper got accepted in Phys Rev B. The journal mailed me some 300 or so preprints. After giving them out to friends, relatives, class-mates and whoever wanted to read my first paper, I still had some 280 left. So, I decided to mail out few preprints to the authors of papers that we cited. Yes, I am talking about putting preprints in envelope, going to post office and mailing them to various persons. It was 1996, when the internet was barely invented.

Nobody responded to my preprint mails except one chemistry professor, who sent me back a nice letter saying that he enjoyed the paper and showed it to his group. Overall, I concluded that it was not easy for newbies to cut into the physics land.


Our paper eventually received ~1000 citations, which is far less than Einstein’s but still quite respectable for the first paper of a graduate student.

Many years later (when wikipedia was born), I found out that the chemistry professor writing back to me received a Nobel prize in 1981. I had no idea before.


Science was lot less hyped in those days. In fact, my professor would have felt embarrassed, if he knew that I mailed the preprints to Hoffman and others.

My first two papers in bininformatics were with ex-physicists and I did not realize that the world of biology would be any different than other sciences. First taste of their new world came, when I started to work with ‘professional biologists’. Often I sensed intense pressure to rush out results to Science or Nature. Even more depressing was my first personal interaction with a Science editor, who sent out my paper for second review after learning that I was an electrical engineer, not ‘professional biologist’. Let us leave that story for another day. Overall I see the similar signs of deterioration in all scientific disciplines. Several months back, Bob Laughlin, a very respected theoretical physicist, wrote an article on climate patterns but several ‘professionals’ asked him to shut up for not being a ‘climateologist’.

Written by M. //