Albert Einstein on the power of ideas and imagination in science

Albert EinsteinWhat do the fields of economic sociology and political economy, or social and political sciences in general, have to do with Albert Einstein?.. you might probably ask. Well, they do; and hopefully at the end of this post you will agree with me to some extent.
I am a firm believer in the power of ideas which commonly guide, and block, our thinking, analyzing and actions; as well as I am strongly interested in the puzzling process of theorizing and an explanatory and prescriptive vigor of theories.
ideasThat is how mysterious ways of intellectual curiosity have led me to The Evolution of Physics by Albert Einstein and Leopold Infeld (1938). This science book, written by two academic giants, addresses the lay reader and traces the development of ideas in physics in a remarkably lucid manner.
But this book is not only about physics as a discipline. In my view, it is also about the importance of imagination and power of ideas in the evolution of thinking, inquiry and research; it is about the essential sources of intellectual endeavors to understand the world.
The text below is based on selected excerpts from the book composed by me as a short article. Actually, this article elaborates Einstein’s famous quote: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution. It is, strictly speaking, a real factor in scientific research.” (from his On Cosmic Religion: With Other Opinions and Aphorisms, 1931, p. 49).
You are welcome to read it, and remember: Sometimes, an imaginative mind of an intellectual committed to the politics of truth that is what is needed to uncover the hidden structures and reproducing mechanisms of the socio-economic reality and to crumble the dominating ideas that prevent institutional changes.

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“In nearly every detective novel since the admirable stories of Conan Doyle there comes a time when the investigator has collected all the facts he needs for at least some phase of his problem. These facts often seem quite strange, incoherent, and wholly unrelated. The great detective, however, realizes that no further investigation is needed at the moment, and that only pure thinking will lead to a correlation of the facts collected. So he plays his violin, or lounges in his armchair enjoying a pipe, when suddenly, by Jove, he has it! Not only does he have an explanation for the clues at hand but he knows that certain other events must have happened. Since he now knows exactly where to look for it, he may go out, if he likes, to collect further confirmation for his theory (pp. 4-5)… It is a familiar fact to readers of detective fiction that a false clue muddles the story and postpones the solution (6)… Intuitive conclusions based on immediate observation are not always to be trusted, for they sometimes lead to the wrong clues. But where does intuition go wrong? (7)… In a good mystery story the most obvious clues often lead to the wrong suspects… the most obvious intuitive explanation is often the wrong one (9)…
Science must create its own language, its own concepts, for its own use. Scientific concepts often begin with those used in ordinary language for the affairs, of everyday life, but they develop quite differently. They are transformed and lose the ambiguity associated with them in ordinary language, gaining in rigorousness so that they may be applied to scientific thought (14)…
Our interest here lies in the first stages of development, in following initial clues, in showing how new… concepts are born in the painful struggle with old ideas. We are concerned only with pioneer work in science, which consists of finding new and unexpected paths of development; with the adventures in scientific thought which create an ever-changing picture of the universe. The initial and fundamental steps are always of a revolutionary character. Scientific imagination finds old concepts too confining, and replaces them by new ones. The continued development along any line already initiated is more in the nature of evolution, until the next turning point is reached when a still newer field must be conquered. In order to understand, however, what reasons and what difficulties force a change in important concepts, we must know not only the initial clues, but also the conclusions which can be drawn (28)…
Most of the fundamental ideas of science are essentially simple, and may, as a rule, be expressed in a language comprehensible to everyone. To follow up these ideas demands the knowledge of a highly refined technique of investigation (29)…
Nearly every great advance in science arises from a crisis in the old theory, through an endeavour to find a way out of the difficulties created. We must examine old ideas, old theories, although they belong to the past, for this is the only way to understand the importance of the new ones and the extent of their validity.
In the first pages of our book we compared the role of an investigator to that of a detective who, after gathering the requisite facts, finds the right solution by pure thinking. In one essential this comparison must be regarded as highly superficial. Both in life and in detective novels the crime is given. The detective must look for letters, fingerprints, bullets, guns, but at least he knows that a murder has been committed. This is not so for a scientist…. For the detective the crime is given, the problem formulated: who killed Cock Robin? The scientist must, at least in part, commit his own crime, as well as carry out the investigation. Moreover, his task is not to explain just one case, but all phenomena which have happened or may still happen (77-8)…
Yet we may choose to be conservative and seek a solution [to a result that shakes our belief] within the frame of old ideas. Difficulties of this kind, sudden and unexpected obstacles in the triumphant development of a theory, arise frequently in science. Sometimes a simple generalization of the old ideas seems, at least temporarily, to be a good way out… Very often, however, it is impossible to patch up an old theory, and the difficulties result in its downfall and the rise of a new one (93-4)…
The formulation  of a problem is often more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of… experimental skill. To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires  creative imagination and marks real advance in science (95)…
Creating a new theory is not like destroying an old barn and erecting a sky scraper in its place. It is rather like climbing a mountain, gaining new and wider views, discovering new connections between our starting point and its rich environment. But the point from which we started still exists and can be seen, although it appears smaller and forms a tiny part of our broad view gained by the mastery of the obstacles on our way up (159)…
Science forces us to create new ideas, new theories. Their aim is to break down the wall of contradictions which frequently blocks the way of scientific progress. All the essential ideas in science were born in a dramatic conflict between reality and our attempts at understanding. Here again is a problem for the solution of which new principles are needed (280)… The association of solved problems with those unsolved may throw new light on our difficulties by suggesting new ideas. It is easy to find a superficial analogy which really expresses nothing. But to discover some essential common features, hidden beneath a surface of external differences, to form, on this basis, a new successful theory, is important creative work (Einstein and Infeld  1938: 286-7)”

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4 Responses to Albert Einstein on the power of ideas and imagination in science

  1. Very interesting topic, from my earlier years of teaching at Universities I was familiar with Albert Einstein’s writings not precisely about physics but many articles in contemporary subjects related to the human thinking, social, political or cultural. His brilliant mind was obviously open to a variety of
    social or historical contemporary problems of his own time. In my understanding he as scientific did
    not isolated his own system of though or his dialectical methodology to analysed the human society, ethics and even politics. There is a concatenation in Einstein thinking of the Universo phenomena in which he can be an isolated investigator of the realities, social, physic or natural. Theory then is a system of thought like “…a house which, right after being built and decorated, requieres of its upkeep an effort more or less vigorous but assiduous (depending of the negative effects of the
    elements). At a certain point in time it is not worth to continuing repairing, and we must take the decision to demolished and started it from cero. In the system of thought then perpetually new house is perpetually maintained by the old one which almost through a feat of magic, persist in the new. In conclusion: mankind system of thinking is as one philosopher approached is a subsequent
    and unlimited attempts to demolish those truths that are understood implicitly. white others need to be reconsidered and integrated.

  2. ashique says:

    it is an outstanding theory.

  3. Pingback: Academic CV of Failures – a motivational lesson | Economic Sociology and Political Economy

  4. Pingback: “Ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write?” | Economic Sociology and Political Economy

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