Thinking Like Einstein

By Thomas West
Pub. 2004

This book explores the hidden creative styles of great thinkers like Einstein. It argues the benefits of visual thinking in solving problems and experiencing the world. West (the author) is tireless in promoting the values of visual experiences over exclusively written ones, in understanding the world. He further suggests that emerging computer visualization technologies will mark a significant shift in the way creative people express themselves.

Some chapters of this book are quite interesting; however, this book has very little to do with Einstein and much to do with promoting visual thinking. Einstein was a strong visual thinker, but I feel this book misinforms the reader by titling the book “Thinking Like Einstein”. If you’re looking for Einstein’s secret sauce, look elsewhere; however, if you’re looking for reasons to think more visually, this is your book.

Favorite Quotes:

As the specialist strategy continues to be pursued, increasingly a sense of the whole is lost.1127

Many are expert; few are wise.2127

Creative visual thinkers tend to know:

  • How to gain the most understanding with the least information
  • How to learn as much from what they see as what they read
  • How to guess what is inessential and focus only on the really important

Too often the specialist is prone to wasting time without being aware of it… they do what the professor or employer expects them to do. They may be too well focused and disciplined to see what nature invites them to discover.3128

In any field, or any sub-field, as Einstein said, there is so much to do and so much to know that one can easily squander a lifetime (career or material success notwithstanding) without results of real consequence. Specialists must develop some sort of inner guide to avoid the continuous acquisition of comparatively inessential information.4128

The key is to know (i.e. be aware of) what you don’t really need to know and avoid it. 5paraphrased 130

In the world of science and technology, sometimes a gift is seen only as a problem – a problem that would be quickly wished away if we could. However, sometimes the most important thing is to be able to recognize a gift for what it is, even though it was not asked for or wanted… we need to learn how to recognize and more fully appreciate the potential of the unexpected and the unwanted. We might ask ourselves whether the things we now see as problems are really opportunities in disguise – unwanted gifts.6140

My [scientist] friend acknowledges that he and his associates are compelled to churn out grant proposals, design more studies, and hire additional promising post-doctoral researchers. That is the system. Yet he suspects that no more studies are really needed, at least for a while. He suspects that there is enough information available now to fit the pieces of the puzzle together, if only there were time to sit in the library and quietly think it through. But there is no money for sitting in the library and thinking. So the grant applications are submitted, and more numbers are produced, to be reviewed by peers – leading to more studies and numbers once again. The machine grinds on with more new numbers but little new understanding.7140

If a person wishes to be really creative, it seems that it is sometimes essential to have time to be able to follow where one’s thoughts lead rather than having to succeed in a series of tasks largely defined by one’s career, one’s competitors, or other outside forces.8140

Einstein observed, one needs to be able to look past the specialist knowledge to see the larger whole, avoiding getting tangled in “the more or less dispensable erudition.”9141

In the time of the Wrights, the head of the Smithsonian Institution, Samuel Pierpont Langley, a respected engineer and scientist, obtained a sizable grant of fifty thousand dollars from the War Department to develop a heavier-than-air aircraft, but his experiments sank in the Potomac, with “howls of derision from all quarters.” Wilbur and Orville financed their experiments entirely out of their own modest personal resources, at small fraction of the cost of the fully funded professional effort…. the difference is a dramatic indication of what can happen when fully qualified people embark on a project with ample resources. One Wright biographer pointed out, “As adminstrator of the country’s most prestigious scientific institution, Langley was in an enviable position when it came to producing such an aircraft, but in some ways the wealth of manpower and resources at his disposal was a hindrance.”10144

In the time of the Wrights, sophisticated mechanical capabilities had become widely available at modest cost to comparatively ordinary people – without special education or facilities. Today, extraordinarily sophisticated electronic capabilities have already become widely available at modest cost to these same comparatively ordinary people.11144

What is needed is not so much big budgets but cheap tools and a big vision.12144

If you can visualize the shape, you can understand the system.13Quoting James Gleick, Chaos: Making a New Science. pp 144

Further Reading

  • The Alphabet versus the Goddess: The Conflict between Word and Image

References   [ + ]

1, 2. 127
3, 4. 128
5. paraphrased 130
6, 7, 8. 140
9. 141
10, 11, 12. 144
13. Quoting James Gleick, Chaos: Making a New Science. pp 144

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