If you google the following quote, you will find thousands of opinions about whether or not it is correctly attributed:
“The definition of insanity is repeating the same thing over and over, and expecting a different outcome.” -Albert Einstein
I’m sure many of you have heard this before, in one of its many forms. It has been used by politicians, pundits and other talking heads, mental health professionals and self-help groups aplenty. I’ve even heard it used by regular people!
I won’t belabor the arguments pro and con concerning its validity or attribution, other than putting forward my vote. I believe it is correctly attributed to Einstein, mainly because of when and where I learned of it. I was introduced to this aphorism approximately one decade before ARPANET became the internet, and two decades before the internet became the mis-information highway.
Here’s the history that I was taught:
Einstein, as we all (hopefully) know, was the person who famously first discovered the relationship E=mc^2, developed theories of specific and general relativity, and dozens of other nifty axioms, lemmas, and theories all springing from that body of work. (I hate to break it to you, but Grumpy Cat did not discover Relativity!)
Einstein went to his grave trying to complete his work on what he called the “Unified Field Theory”. This theory postulated that all the primary forces of the universe — electricity, magnetism, weak nuclear, strong nuclear, and gravity — were all related by a single beautiful equation.
At the time he solved relativity and began developing his UFT, another branch of physics — Quantum Mechanics — had sprung up and was gaining popularity among the physics nerds of that day. Today, we know quantum machanics works. It explains much of the world about us that classical physics could not. Simply put, we would not know how to make transistors, LEDs, or computers if quantum mechanics had no validity. But there was a time when QM was on unsure footing.
First, let’s take a look at the most basic ‘thought experiment’ used to demonstrate the difference between classical physics and quantum mechanics — an electron passing though a strong electric field that would repel it. A close analogy would be throwing a baseball through a brick wall. What are the chances of the baseball going through the brick wall, without destroying either the baseball or the brick wall? Classical physics says ‘zero’. Quantum mechanics says ‘almost zero’. According to QM, if you throw millions of baseballs at the wall at high-enough velocities, there is a small probability that one baseball will eventually make it through.
But in Einstein’s time, or at least when he spoke the above quote, the validity of quantum mechanics was debatable. Moreover – and here’s the important part – it was absolutely antithetical to Einstein’s precious concept of the UFT. They simply could not co-exist. Einstein thought that Schrodinger got it wrong, and that every physicist in the QM camp was nuts.
It’s curious that this aphorism is nowadays used as a cute helpful ditty regarding human behavior, when in fact its original intent was a polite insult.
Anyway, that’s my bit of Uncommon Knowledge for the day.