Einstein: wondering about space and time like a child

At the age of four or five, young Albert experienced a wonder. His father Herman showed him a compass. This experience, so recounts Einstein himself, changed his life: “A wonder of this kind I experienced as a child of four or five years when my father showed me a compass. That this needle behaved in such a determined way did not at all fit into the kind of occurrences that could find a place in the unconscious world of concepts (efficacy produced by direct ‘touch’). I can still remember – or at least believe I can remember – that this experience made a deep and lasting impression upon me”. x

Einstein explained: “I have no doubt but that our thinking goes on for the most part without use of signs (words) and beyond that to a considerable degree unconsciously. For how, otherwise, should it happen that sometimes we ‘wonder’ quite spontaneously about some experience?” And: “This ‘wondering’ appears to occur when an experience comes into conflict with a world of concepts already sufficiently fixed within us. Whenever such a conflict is experienced sharply and intensively it reacts back upon our world of thought in a decisive way. The development of this world of thought is in a certain sense a continuous flight from ‘wonder’.” x

The significance of a wonder for Einstein was that Einstein – as the psychologist Erik Erikson emphasized – had the ability to keep the child alive in the man. Towards the end of his life Einstein mused that he was brought to the formulation of relativity theory in good part because he kept asking himself questions concerning space and time that only children wonder about

Erikson, 1928: Studied child psychology with Anna Freud here

The famed Swiss Child psychologist and historian of science Jean Piaget said in his talk, Genetic Epistemology at Columbia University, “In point of fact, Einstein himself recognized the relevance of psychological factors, and when I had the good chance to meet him for the first time in 1928, he suggested to me that it would be of interest to study the origins in children of notions of time and in particular of notions of simultaneity”. x

Indeed Piaget studied these notions in children and he also analyzed Einstein’s psychological way of thinking

“I should like to go on now to a second example and to raise the following question: how is it that Einstein was able to give a new operational definition of simultaneity at a distance? How was he able to criticize the Newtonian notion of universal time without giving rise to a deep crisis within physics? Of course his critique had its roots in experimental findings, such as the Michelson-Morley experiment – that goes without saying [Piaget’s analysis]. x

Nonetheless, if this redefinition of the possibility of events to be simultaneous at great distances from each other went against the grain of our logic, there would have been a considerable crisis within physics. We would have had to accept one of two possibilities: either the physical world is not rational, or else human reason is impotent – incapable of grasping external reality

Well, in fact nothing of this sort happened. […] simultaneity is not a primitive notion: It is not a primitive concept, and it is not even a primitive perception. […] our experimental findings have shown that human beings do not perceive simultaneity with any precision. If we look at two objects moving at different speeds, and they stop at the same time, we do not have an adequate perception. That they stopped at the same time. Similarly, when children do not have a very exact idea of what simultaneity is, they do not conceive of it independently of the speed at which objects are travelling. Simultaneity, then, is not a primitive intuition; it is an intellectual construction

Long before Einstein, Henri Poincare did a great deal of work in analyzing the notion of simultaneity and revealing its complexities. His studies took him, in fact, almost to the threshold of discovering relativity. Now if we read his essays on this subject, which, by the way, are all the more interesting when considered in the light of Einstein’s later work, we see that his reflections were based almost entirely on psychological arguments. Later on I shall show that the notion of time and the notion of simultaneity are based on the notion of speed, which is a more primitive intuition”. x

Piaget, Jean, Genetic Epistemology, a series of lectures delivered by Piaget at Columbia University, Published by Columbia University Press, translated by Eleanor Duckworth