Today’s science fiction is often tomorrow’s innovation. Whether you’re talking about hoverboards, self-driving cars, or retinal scanning, you can point to sci-fi stories in which the idea appeared long before someone started working on it in reality.
And as it turns out, the ideas in several stories may have provided inspiration for some of Albert Einstein’s theories. What’s more, Einstein used stories to explain complex concepts to lay audiences. In particular, he relied on the fiction of writers named Felix Eberty and Aaron Bernstein. “He recalled devouring Bernstein’s work, in particular, ‘with breathless attention,’ and it may have inspired one of the conjectures that led to his special theory of relativity,” writes Jimena Canales in The New Yorker.
In his 1846 story “The Stars and World History,” Eberty speculated on what might happen if humans could travel faster than the speed of light. He also wondered what would you would see if you observed events that had unfolded on Earth from a faraway star. You might, he wrote, “see the earth at this moment as it existed at the time of Abraham.” As for Bernstein, he wrote about a great cosmic postal service for which the past and the present were outdated concepts. If you traveled faster than light, you could deliver mail to historical figures.
In 1916, Einstein used “fanciful imaginings like those of Eberty” to explain general relativity and his grand theory to wider audiences, Canales writes. Interestingly, at the time, there was a precedent for using popular stories to explain space-time contortions. French physicist Paul Langevin had previously evoked Jules Verne’s storytelling universe–specifically, a space-travel device Verne calls a “projectile”–during a lecture on special relativity. “Einstein chose more familiar conveyances,” writes Canales. “His stories featured ‘our old friend the railway carriage.’”
Audiences worldwide were enchanted with the stories made possible by Einstein’s theories. The media flocked to astronomers who could spin amusing yarns based on relativity’s concepts. In 1919, Canales notes, astronomer Arthur Eddington gave a talk at Trinity College, Cambridge. The New York Times headline for the story was: “Professor Eddington, 6 Feet to the Eye, Explains How It May Be Really Only 3 Feet.”
That was just the beginning of Eddington’s charm. In a 1920 essay he informed readers what it would be like to travel at almost nine-tenths the speed of light. “The pilot’s watch would seem, to a terrestrial observer, to tick twice as slowly; his cigar would seem to burn twice as long,” explains Canales.
The popularity of relativity–and the fanciful storytelling surrounding it–meant that Einstein had to deal with detractors. French philosopher Henri Bergson implied that Einstein’s talent “was not so different from that of H. G. Wells, whose novel The Time Machine had considered time as a fourth dimension, just as general relativity did,” writes Canales. “Perhaps both fascinated the public because of their fictional qualities more than their scientific ones.” Bergson’s arguments carried weight. As late as 1922, the Nobel Committee for Physics still did not accept Einstein’s relativity theory as valid.
Einstein battled back. In 1923, when Eberty’s “The Stars and World History” was being republished, Einstein agreed to write an intro. He called Eberty “an original and ingenious person.” Eberty, like Einstein, had grasped that “a seemingly stable feature of reality was neither unidirectional nor absolute.”
For entrepreneurs, Einstein’s plight is a helpful reminder of the way skillful storytelling can turn complex concepts into relatable ones. Not long ago I spoke to serial entrepreneur David Norris. He could’ve described his latest venture, MD Insider, as a startup that arms patients with data to compare physicians. That’s what it is. Instead, though, he began with a story about his own experience with a botched surgery. He made the concept of his company relatable to anyone who’s ever regretted a doctor’s visit. He took it out of the province of data, which can be dry and boring.
The other takeaway of Einstein’s story is that no matter how profound or brilliant your concept is, you will still have to do the work of explaining it in a way that people can understand. And as soon as your concept gains popularity, you can expect a new wave of detractors who–like Bergson–will denounce your idea for that very reason.