Setting: a small old-fashioned but very tidy office. Its narrow window overlooks a big city. The walls are decorated with framed certificates, a few family pictures, and a majestic portrait of Emperor Wilhelm II. At the massive wooden desk in the middle of the room sits a small middle-aged man, dressed in very accurate clothing and wearing half-moon spectacles. He now sharpens a pencil, wipes the shavings methodically into a tray specifically allocated for that purpose, and proceeds to scribble a few notes onto a document in front of him. After a short while he presses a red button to his side. A military-sounding buzz can be heard. A moment later the only door into the room opens with an incongruous creak, and a nervous looking young man, maybe in his mid-twenties, hesitatingly enters the room. He wears a suit for the occasion, which appears to be second-hand and a bit too large.
Officer: Come in, come in, no need to be shy! We don’t bite here! [Laughs heartily at his own sense of humor.]
[The young man steps forward and takes a seat at the desk, opposite to the officer.]
Officer: Sit down, sit down! [He looks up for the first time.] Ah, well. Right. Make yourself comfortable. I am adjudicating officer Schmitt, tasked with the evaluation of scientific research proposals submitted to the Imperial Agency for the Advancement of Natural Research. We are a new branch of his Majesty’s Government, established in his edict from last March to foster the Advancement of Natural Research. As stipulated by section 3 paragraph 5, all scientific funding is henceforth subject to prior evaluation and should aim for the betterment of mankind. You understand?
Young man: I think I do. I am also in favor of the betterment of mankind.
Officer Schmitt: Wonderful. All on the same page. Good. Let’s begin then. Just to confirm—your name?
Young man: Einstein. Albert Einstein.
O.S.: Thank you, and your occupation is?
A.E.: I am a physicist. I work at a patent office.
O.S.: Very good. Excellent. Sounds very practical. Good. So. I have in front of me a research proposal that you have sent to us in which you ask for funding of—let me read that off so that I get it right—research on the “electrodynamics of moving bodies.” That sounds, um, fascinating, but I must admit I am not entirely sure I understand what your project is driving at. So the Imperial Agency for the Advancement of Natural Research has invited you to have a bit of a conversation, with me that is, in which you explain to me why the Imperial Agency for the Advancement of Natural Research should support this type of inquiry.
A.E.: You mean, now?
O.S.: Now would be a good time.
A.E.: Ja, alright then. Hm. [Thinks for a short bit.] See, the goal of this project is to investigate the motion of bodies, and why it is different from what Newton has taught us.
O.S.: Right. Very good. Who is “Newton,” by the way?
A.E.: Newton is—wait, you are evaluating physics proposals, but you don’t know who Isaac Newton is?
O.S.: Well, you’re saying he’s wrong anyways. Doesn’t seem like a big loss to me. [Laughs again loudly.] Let’s not get bogged down with names. What’s your project about?
A.E.: Ah, um, so I’m proposing that we should revisit how we measure distances and times, because we’ve never really thought carefully about that, and it turns out it matters on a fundamental level. For instance, if we imagine two events A and B…
O.S.: I’m quite sure the fine people at the Imperial Office for Weights and Measurements have thought quite carefully how to measure distances and times. Have they not?
A.E.: Oh, I’m sure they have. But this is more of a fundamental question, one of principle.
O.S.: [looks skeptically over the rim of his half-moon spectacles] Alright then. Please proceed.
A.E.: Right. If we imagine two events A and B, …
O.S.: …oh, and can you please make it a bit less abstract? “A” and “B” sounds so theoretical.
A.E.: Right. OK. [Thinks.] Imagine a train driving past the embankment of a train station. There’s a person in one of the carriages, and there’s also a person outside on the embankment. Is that more to your liking?
O.S.: Splendid. Please proceed.
A.E.: Now imagine that the front and the back of the carriage is struck by lightning.
O.S.: Whoa, that seems rather coincidental! I’m not sure how likely that is. Front and back? At the same time?
A.E.: Well, it is admittedly a bit of a contrived example to illustrate a point…
O.S.: [More skeptical looks.] Well, alright then. I’ll let that pass. For now. [Scribbles a few notes on the document in front of him.]
A.E.: Right. Now, you were asking “at the same time?” That’s a good question, because that’s actually a crucial point here. I’m arguing that we cannot tell.
O.S.: Well, I’m sure I couldn’t tell. But the fine lads from the Imperial Office for Weights and Measurements have good clocks and good equipment, I’m confident they would be able to.
A.E.: Ja, no, I’m sorry, I’m putting this very poorly. What I’m saying is, they will surely express an opinion on the matter, but others might disagree.
O.S.: Are you saying the fine officers at the Imperial Office for Weights and Measurements would not be up to the job? These are highly trained officials!
A.E.: No no, I’m convinced they’d do a fine job!
O.S.: Highly trained!
A.E.: Yes, I’m sure. But what I’m saying is that if you have two groups of officers, one in the train and one outside on the embankment, they would not agree on their measurements.
O.S.: Why would we need two groups?
A.E.: Well, for comparison.
O.S.: Dr. Einstein. These officers are experienced professionals. They are paid a premium salary for their fine work. Maybe even more than me. [His lips tighten ever so slightly at that thought.] I think two groups is excessive.
A.E.: I see where you’re coming from, but this is a matter of principle. If these two groups both make measurements, …
O.S.: Have you budgeted for two groups in your proposal?
A.E.: Pardon me?
O.S.: Are you sure you can afford such a lavish deployment of Imperial Measurement Officers?
A.E.: Me? Oh no, I’m a theoretician.
O.S.: So why do we need all these officers to make these measurements?
A.E.: Well, we actually don’t. But you asked me for a concrete example.
O.S.: Naturally, Dr. Einstein. But we should keep it realistic. You don’t want to blow your whole budget on one experiment with trains. In fact, you also don’t want to blow the train. I don’t like the idea of lightning strikes to begin with. These are not just dangerous to people. You might also damage the train.
A.E.: [Getting visibly more nervous.] Mr. Schmitt, …
O.S.: Officer Schmitt, please. Formalities ought to be preserved.
A.E.: My apologies. Officer Schmitt, I am not sure how to illustrate my ideas to you if you object against such a simple thought experiment.
O.S.: A thought experiment?
A.E.: Yes, it is not essential to do this experiment, these fine officers are not actually necessary…
O.S.: Not necessary? Oh, I assure you our government absolutely needs these fine officers! Or do you suggest we fire them?
A.E.: No no, I would suggest no such thing!
O.S.: But you consider them unnecessary?
A.E.: Well for the purpose of this experiment…
O.S.: You started with them! I have not insisted that you bring them into your story.
A.E.: [confused look] No—I mean, I don’t recall how we got here. I just wanted to…
O.S.: And you have started to talk about an experiment, but then you said we might as well just think about doing it. I’m not sure that would fly well with the budget office at all.
A.E.: [increasingly dejected] I was just trying to…
O.S.: [Puts the pencil down and over his half-moon spectacles looks Dr. Einstein firmly in the eyes.] Dr. Einstein. Let me get more directly to the point I’m trying to make. I have read your proposal, but I could not find out what this would be good for. You talk about measuring things, but not actually in real life, about sending light flashes around, whoosh, whoosh, about somehow squishing rulers shorter and making clocks run slow, or something. Why would anybody want their clock to run slow?
A.E.: Well, nobody would want their clock…
O.S.: And don’t even get me started about that second part in your proposal, where you’re moving magnets around or some such stuff. Nobody moves magnets around just for fun. They’re heavy, and it is not practical.
A.E.: [Pained expression.] It is a thought, to illustrate another thought…
O.S.: Well, see, that is the point. Thoughts to illustrate other thoughts! That’s not very practical.
A.E.: I’m a theoretician, that’s what I do.
O.S.: And I’m an officer at the Imperial Agency for the Advancement of Natural Research. I need to decide whether your work is recommended for funding. That’s what I do.
A.E.: [Sinks his head.] …
O.S.: Oh, come on, come on now—don’t despair. Look, I like young people, I really do. But you all have these willy-nilly strange ideas that are so un-practical. The other day someone was in my office who wanted to measure the heat opacity of metals, or some such thing, at extremely low temperatures. What a waste of resources, I told him! It’s never that cold around here!
A.E.: It sounds interesting to me…
O.S.: And then there was this chap who wanted to send a beam of electrons through a strong magnetic field. He had some ideas of sorting them up and down or something. So I asked him: will this help lower my electric bill? And you know what he said?
A.E.: [very softly] No, what did he say?
O.S.: [booming] He said no! It would not lower my electric bill! So I told him to do something more applied. That’s the spirit of today! We want to have a transformative impact on society!
A.E.: [silently stares at his hands]
O.S.: You do want to have a transformative impact on society, no?
A.E.: Yes, yes, I suppose I want to.
O.S.: There. See? All you young whippersnappers want to change the world. But you’re so disconnected from it. So un-practical! You all have these wild ideas of doing things that have no real application. You’re excited—I give you that. Just not very experienced with how the world works.
A.E.: [softly] I just thought I had a really important idea and wanted to pursue it further.
O.S.: I’m sure you thought that. And that’s great! But your proposal is so, how shall I say, so “lofty.” Look, I want to help you. That’s part of my job. Let’s look into this together, shall we? For instance, will your proposal help to protect trains from getting struck by lightning?
A.E.: N–No, I don’t think so.
O.S.: OK, well, it was an idea. Then let’s not talk about that. Let’s leave out the inessential stuff. Moving on! You’re talking about measuring time. Will it maybe help keep the trains on schedule?
A.E.: Oh, well, I don’t think so either. Realistically speaking.
O.S.: Hm, but that would be quite a worthy endeavor. Why not work on that?
A.E.: I am not especially interested in trains.
O.S.: Ah, but you talk about them incessantly!
A.E.: They are good examples for…
O.S.: Well, strike them out. If you don’t care about them, strike them out. But then, what are you interested in?
A.E.: I guess I am interested in clocks.
O.S.: OK, that’s a start! We all need good clocks. Will your project help us build better clocks?
A.E.: Well, I don’t know. The point is not the clock, the point is reading off the time and knowing what it really means.
O.S.: Dr. Einstein, my 6-year-old nephew can read the clock. And the little rascal is not really all that bright—if you get my drift [chuckles]. I’m sure you wouldn’t want to suggest that reading the clock is hard.
A.E.: No, but that’s not actually the point.
O.S.: Ah, but what is the point? We’ve been dancing around that for the entire time here! First you let trains get struck by lightning, then you said that’s just a thought. Then you want to measure that thought by two different groups of expensive—expensive!—imperial officers, but you have no budget for that in your proposal. Then it turns out you’re not even interested in trains! Dr. Einstein, I seriously worry that you don’t actually know what you want to work on.
A.E.: Well, I do, but it seems I’m quite unable to explain it to you.
O.S.: It so seems.
A.E.: [contrite] So what can I do? I like physics, I really do. But if you don’t give me that funding, I cannot continue to pursue my ideas.
O.S.: Ah, don’t look so desperate. So you like physics, you’re maybe even good at it! Just try to find something that’s a bit more practical. Don’t you have some ideas about something more, you know—down-to-earth?
A.E.: [Pauses, thinks for a bit.] Well, uh, I have some thoughts about, uh, diffusion of particles in water…
O.S.: Particles? Like what?
A.E.: Like small dust particles, very tiny, and they move randomly in water, in a way that is really curious. [Excitedly] See, if you look at their position as a function of time…
O.S.: Dust particles? You mean, like dirt in water?
A.E.: If you want, y–yes, that’s an example.
O.S.: Great! So that could have applications to wastewater treatment!
A.E.: I’m not sure this is…
O.S.: Maybe even public health! People get sick from dirty water!
A.E.: Yes, I suppose they do.
O.S.: You could help clean that up! See, we’re on a good path here! You might even be able to apply to funding from the Imperial Institutes of Health! They have an even bigger budget than we do.
A.E.: Yes, I’m sure they have. But I’m not actually interested in dirty water at this point. All I want to do is…
O.S.: Please, Dr. Einstein. Here we go again! You identify some important problem of practical relevance, like wastewater treatment, but then you’re suddenly not really interested in it anymore! You just want to study how the dirt particles move!
A.E.: [Pleadingly] But it’s so very interesting! I’m sure if you’d just let me look into this further, …
O.S.: Oh well, but can I? You see, my agency has a limited budget, and we need to devote this to addressing the practical problems of our modern society. Let me give you an example. People are now building these very very tall buildings. They are really good at that in America. They call them “skyscrapers”. [Scoffs.] Now His Majesty Emperor Wilhelm also wants some of them here! But it turns out it’s damn hard to build them! We need better building materials, stronger concrete, better cranes. Oh yes, cranes are a big thing! You could work on building better cranes, but I have a feeling that if we gave you the funds for doing so, you’d later say that you’re actually not all that interested in cranes. You’re much more interested in, I don’t know, gravity…
A.E.: [helpless whimper] But gravity is interesting! It is so extremely interesting, if only you’d let me explain. I have some ideas here…
O.S.: Look, Dr. Einstein, I think we need to come to a close here. I’m sure you are a talented man, and maybe one day you might actually have a few physics ideas that are also useful. Don’t look so dejected, you really might! But unless you start to think about the practical applications of your quirky ideas, it will not amount to much. You will see. Once you get a bit older, you will see. The young men of today are so, I don’t know, so aimless. I’m sure you will find your groove if you give it some time. Until then, maybe you should look a bit more closely at the inventions that real engineers submit to the patent office you work at. Let that inspire you! And maybe, one day, you’re going to invent something yourself! Something practical! Like, I don’t know, a better screwdriver, or wait, wait, even better—a better screw! Wouldn’t that be wonderful!
A.E.: It sounds quite thrilling. [Slowly gets up.]
O.S.: [Rises from his chair, walks around the desk, and pats Einstein on the back.] You’ll be fine, Dr. Einstein, I’m sure of it! Just put your mind to work on some good old practical stuff. If only you work hard at it, you might one day come up with something useful! Maybe you get even famous! [Winks at him.] Imagine that—the “Einstein screw!” Every handyman would know what that is!
A.E.: That would be fascinating.
O.S.: Wouldn’t it? You are young, you can still accomplish something—I mean, if you really set your mind to it. But stop fantasizing about trains and clocks and all that other stuff, unless you want to build better trains or better clocks. Trust me. You’ll be better off.
A.E.: Thank you for your advice, I will think about it.
O.S.: Yes, yes, very good. I wish you good luck with that. Goodbye! [Closes the door.]
Officer Schmitt stands there, silently. After a while he heavily breathes, his shoulders sag, he slowly shakes his head and shuffles back to his desk.
Markus Deserno is a professor in the Department of Physics at Carnegie Mellon University. His field of study is theoretical and computational biophysics, with a focus on lipid membranes.