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Outside Player

Working in a patent office can be a good thing

Among the many reasons we revere Albert Einstein is the fact that he rewrote the laws of physics in his spare time. He had a day job as an examiner in the patent office in Bern, Switzerland.

He wroted an eight-hour shift six days a week. He liked the paycheck. At night he'd wander around with a few friends and talk about physics.

Even after publishing four historic physics papers in 1905, his annus mirabilis, he stayed at the patent office. Einstein's miracle year should inspire everyone out there who, sitting in a coffee shop, sketching out some secret, elaborate, universe-altering theory on a napkin, dreams of someday being recognized as a genius rather than as a crank.

Could the young Einstein have performed his intelectual feats as an academic?

 At the time, the field of theoretical physics was in its infancy, its practitioners often clashing with the more estabished experimentalists. Einstein had been a spirited basic laws od physics, but if he'd stayed in academic, some professors might have turned a deaf ear to a whippersnapper arguing that space and time aren't absolute.
 Perhaps the patent office job hepled in other ways. Einstein had to visualize and evaluate people's invetions based on drawings and specifications. His mind got a constant workout.

 "Working on the final formulation of technological patents was a veritable blessing for me. It enforced many-side thinking and also provided important stimuli to physical thought," Einstein wrote. Academia "places a young person under a kind of compulsion to produce impressive quantities of scientific publications - a temptation to superficiality."

 Thomas Levenson, author of Einstein in Berlin, makes a key point: Although Einstein's miracle year occured whenhe was an outsider, he eventually got the first of many university jobs, and there on the inside in `909, produced his greatest single work - the general theory of relativity, his definition of gravity.

 The younf Einstein was irrepressible whether he was an academic outsider at the patent office or an insider in Berlin. You might say he had, like a great basketball player, both an inside game and an outside game. Pop the jumper, or take it to the hoop. Maybe that analogy is too strange, too outside the bow, but perhaps Einstein would approve.