So You Think You Know Einstein

From Minnesota Alumni Magazine Winter 2015

By Meleah Maynard

Michel Janssen is passionate about helping the layperson understand how science works. A professor in the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine at the University of Minnesota, Janssen studies how scientists come up with their theories. “For those who just want to learn more about science, studying its history and philosophy, and understanding some of the big contributions, makes science much more accessible and interesting,” he says.

Recently, Janssen gave a talk on Einstein to a crowd of about 85 at the Bryant Lake Bowl in Uptown Minneapolis as part of Café Scientifique, a series of conversations on science and culture sponsored by the Bell Museum of Natural History.

In a talk titled Einstein: The Old Sage Versus Young Turk, he explained that there was a big difference between Einstein’s methodology in his youth compared to his older years. “When he was older, Einstein emphasized the mathematical elegance of his work, but when he was young, he focused on empirical data and tried to figure out which theory would give the best explanation of those data,” he explains.

Why did he change? Most scholars believe Einstein changed because he was almost beaten to the punch on his theory of general relativity by mathematician David Hilbert in 1915. But at Café Scientifique, and in The Cambridge Companion to Einstein, which Janssen coedited, he argues that there may have been another factor. Einstein wrote on several occasions that he used physics as his means to escape from the difficulties of life. “Building mathematical castles in the sky is a better way of doing that than pondering experimental data,” Janssen says. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, he says, that Einstein’s approach to physics changed right after World War I, when he was going through a messy divorce and reluctantly entered into a second marriage to a cousin.



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