Monday, March 17, 2014

Why does Einstein say that “One Max” person reading his theory will suffice?

A couple of years ago, I got an opportunity to watch Steve Martin’s play “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” in Bangalore (directed by Vaisakh Shankar and produced by Bangalore theatre group Tahatto). In this play Einstein and Picasso meet at the bar “Lapin Agile” in Paris in 1904. Einstein has just written “Special theory of relativity”. In one scene (21:30), Germaine, the waitress, is trying to help Einstein on how to popularize his book. This is how the conversation goes:

Germaine (23:30): You want your book to have impact, don’t you?
Einstein: Sure
Germaine: And if you want it to have impact, you got to have people read it, don’t you?
Einstein: Yes…
Germaine: Okay, in your field, how many people do you figure need to read your book to have some impact?
Einstein: One
Germaine: No, no, no. In order for your book to have an impact, a lot of people have to read it. Every man in the street has got to have one.
Einstein: No… Only one, Max.
Germaine: Max?
Einstein: Max Plank, a German physicist… very influential. If he reads it, he makes my reputation.

The play is a fiction. However, the point Steve Martin brings out in this dialogue is true. For a person with a “great idea”, an influential person can be of much greater help than a bunch of customers. We call such a person “champion” in our book “8 steps to innovation” and for Einstein, Max Plank was indeed such a champion.

By the time relativity paper was published, Max Plank was a respectable name in theoretical physics and Einstein was an unknown figure. After relativity paper was published Plank was not only the first person to give a lecture on the subject, but also the first person to write a paper building on Einstein’s idea. Later he made a strong recommendation that brought Einstein to University of Berlin. Plank also recommended Einstein for the Nobel Prize.  

There is a reason why I find Plank’s championing of relativity surprising. Along with relativity Einstein had published another paper on the nature of light (light quanta). This paper built on Plank’s work which had introduced the now famous Plank’s constant. However, Plank did not agree with Einstein’s interpretation of the nature of light. In spite of this disagreement, Plank championed the “other” idea of Einstein. Quite remarkable!

Working on your pet idea? Then think of who could be your "Max Plank"!

Walter Isaacson, “Einstein:His life and universe”, Pocket Books, 2007.

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