The Theory of 5,000 Einsteins

In 1905, the year of Albert Einstein’s annus mirabilis, the winner of the Boston Marathon ran a 2:38:25, the fastest time in the world that year.

In 2012, that time would have made him the 4,667th fastest runner in the world.

Over the last 110 years, marathon runners have gotten much, much faster.

And so, too, have humans become much, much more intelligent.

The Flynn Effect describes a measured effect of the secular rise in IQ scores over time. According to the way we traditionally measure intelligence, we are getting smarter every generation. And not just a little smarter, but a lot smarter. Ulric Neisser published a paper in 1998 estimating that a person with average intelligence in 1932 would have been 20 points below average in 1997. Just two generations are enough to take a normal person and make him intellectually deficient compared with the rest of the population.

And, as any runner would tell you, the difference between a 2:38 and a 2:03 marathoner is anything but minor. That’s the difference between an average college athlete and the best in the world.

Albert Einstein’s contributions to physics were so great, that his name is synonymous with the idea of genius.

But if the times of marathoners and the Flynn Effect are any indication, it is unlikely that Einstein is the most intelligent physicist in history. Much more likely is that his recognition and accomplishments are the result of various timing and personality factors.

That’s why he created a revolution in physics. He was the right man at the right time to do the job.

And while his name will always be synonymous with genius, there are probably a lot of physicists today who are as smart or smarter than he was. If the quality of physicists has improved in comparable proportion to the caliber of long-distance runners, there are probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,000 physicists alive today with the intellectual firepower that Einstein possessed.

Maybe more, maybe fewer. The exact number isn’t important. What is important is to recognize that number is almost certainly much larger than zero.

Of course, not all of our modern Einsteins will have their names be synonymous with the concept of genius. And not all of our Einsteins are going to create Kuhnian revolutions.

You cannot have 5,000 paradigm shifts at once. That’s not how it works.

I believe that any linear, numeric measurement of intelligence, such as IQ, will fail to capture precisely the kind of unique characteristics that made Einstein’s genius so significant.

Still, if we draw sensible conclusions from our environment, we should know that our best physicists today are likely doing far more impressive work than anything Einstein did 110 years ago. But no matter what they do, because of timing and circumstance, they’ll never be recognized in the way Einstein was.