Aha! Moments are incredible instances when answers or solutions seem to come into focus, leaving us enlightened, astounded, and changed. Aha! Moments make the ambiguous crystal clear and provide answers where, just moments before, there was nothing but confusion. Some Aha! Moments leave the person or the world forever changed.
Such was Albert Einstein’s Aha! Moment that took place on a street car in Bern, Switzerland. Of this transformational event, American theoretical physicist and futurist Michio Kaku writes:
One day around May of 1905, Einstein went to visit his good friend, Michele Besso who also worked at the patent office, and laid out the dimensions of the problem that had puzzled him for a decade. Using Besso as his favorite sounding-board for his ideas, Einstein presented the issue: Newtonians mechanics and Maxwell’s equations, the two pillars of physics were incompatible. One or the other was wrong. Whichever theory proved to be correct, the final resolution would require a vast reorganization of all of physics. He went over and over the paradox of racing a light beam. Einstein would later recall, “The germ of the special relativity theory was already present in the paradox.” They talked for hours, discussing every aspect of the problem, including Newton’s concept of absolute space and time, which seemed to violate Maxwell’s constancy of the speed of light. Eventually, totally exhausted, Einstein announced that he was defeated and would give up the entire quest. It was no use; he has failed.
When he returned home that night, he remembered riding in a street car in Bern and looking back at the famous clock tower the dominated the city. He then imagined what would happen if his street car raced away from the clock tower at the speed of light. He quickly realized that the clock tower would appear to be stopped, since light could not catch up to the street car, but his own clock in the street car would beat normally.
Then it suddenly hit him, the key to the entire problem. Einstein recalled, “A storm broke loose in my mind.” The answer was simple and elegant: time can beat at different rates throughout the universe, depending on how fast you moved… this meant that events that were simultaneous in one frame were not necessarily simultaneous in another frame, as Newton thought. He had finally tapped into “God’s thoughts.” He would recall excitedly, “The solution came to me suddenly with the thought that our concepts of the laws of space and time can only claim validity insofar as they stand in a clear relation to our experiences… By a revision of the concept of simultaneity into a more malleable form, I thus arrived at the theory of relativity.”
The day after this revelation, Einstein went back to Besso’s home and, without even saying hello, he blurted out, “Thank you. I have completely solved the problem.” He would proudly recall, “An analysis of the concept of time was my solution. Time cannot be absolutely defined, and there is an inseparable relation between time and signal velocity.” For the next six weeks, he furiously worked out every mathematical detail of his brilliant insight, leading to a paper that is arguably one of the most important scientific papers of all time. According to his son, he then went straight to bed for two weeks after giving the paper to Mileva (his wife), to check for any mathematical errors. The final paper, “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies,” was scribbled one thirty-one handwritten pages, but changed world history.
From the book Einstein’s Cosmos by Michio Kaku, pages 60 – 63, as quoted by permission in BIG IDEAS: How to Unleash Your Creative Self and Have More Aha! Moments by Craig Case and Jennifer Beckstrand. Available on Amazon in paperback, Kindle, and Audible.