Combinatory Play with Albert Einstein

Though Einstein is not traditionally known for his creativity, there can be no doubt that a scientist with outrageous and innovative theories possesses a massive degree of creativity. It’s not just following a set of equations that can lead to scientific breakthroughs—a mindset full of openness and finding the unknown is required, and he certainly had those in spades. You probably know the basics of Einstein’s intellectual accomplishments—for instance, the theory of relativity and a newfound understanding of the laws of physics. But you may not know how he was able to come to these discoveries, which were literally unbelievable for the time.

Einstein and Combinatory Play

Though Einstein is not traditionally known for his creativity, there can be no doubt that a scientist with outrageous and innovative theories possesses a massive degree of creativity. It’s not just following a set of equations that can lead to scientific breakthroughs—a mindset full of openness and finding the unknown is required, and he certainly had those in spades.

You probably know the basics of Einstein’s intellectual accomplishments—for instance, the theory of relativity and a newfound understanding of the laws of physics. But you may not know how he was able to come to these discoveries, which were literally unbelievable for the time.

The most notable scientist of the 20th century was known for taking time out of his research to play the violin. Reportedly, he was even very good at it, as he was with the piano. But while sawing away on the violin during his breaks, Einstein actually arrived at some breakthroughs in his research and philosophical questionings. Allegedly one of these musical sessions was the spark for his most famous equation: E=mc2.
Einstein came up with the term “combinatory play” to describe the intangible process in which his favorite pastime led to ideas that revolutionized the whole of scientific thought. He explained his reasoning as best he could in 1945 in a letter to French mathematician Jacques S. Hadamard:


“My Dear Colleague:
In the following, I am trying to answer in brief your questions as well as I am able. I am not satisfied myself with those answers and I am willing to answer more questions if you believe this could be of any advantage for the very interesting and difficult work you have undertaken.
(A) The words or the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be ‘voluntarily’ reproduced and combined.
There is, of course, a certain connection between those elements and relevant logical concepts. It is also clear that the desire to arrive finally at logically connected concepts is the emotional basis of this rather vague play with the above-mentioned elements. But taken from a psychological viewpoint, this combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought—before there is any connection with logical construction in words or other kinds of signs which can be communicated to others.
(B) The above-mentioned elements are, in my case, of visual and some of muscular type. Conventional words or other signs have to be sought for laboriously only in a secondary stage, when the mentioned associative play is sufficiently established and can be reproduced at will.
(C) According to what has been said, the play with the mentioned elements is aimed to be analogous to certain logical connections one is searching for.
(D) Visual and motor. In a stage when words intervene at all, they are, in my case, purely auditive, but they interfere only in a secondary stage, as already mentioned.
(E) It seems to me that what you call full consciousness is a limit case which can never be fully accomplished. This seems to be connected with the fact called the narrowness of consciousness (Enge des Bewusstseins).”


Einstein seemed to believe that indulging in his creative tendencies was helpful for his logical and rational pursuits. That might have been the case, and it also might have been the case that to engage in a distraction was helpful for taking on different perspectives and viewing things from varying angles. Perhaps it’s related to the Medici effect from an earlier chapter, in which the melding of different disciplines will inevitably lead to new discoveries.
Indeed, combinatory play is not simply the notion that play takes your mind to a different world to regroup. It recognizes, as Einstein did, that taking pieces of knowledge and insight from different disciplines and combining them in new contexts is how most creativity truly happens. So as mentioned, somehow Einstein saw something in playing the violin that helped him think about physics in an entirely new way.
The lesson here is to engage in your own pursuits and not feel constrained by having to stay in similar or adjacent disciplines, thinking that only they will aid you. There are always parallels between different disciplines, so find them. More of the same probably will not help; a dash of something different just might.
Einstein became well-known for another thinking technique, and it is one that we use most days in everyday life.
“What if humans were capable of flying?”
“What if the world’s landmasses never broke up into separate continents and instead remained as Pangaea to this day?”

These are hypotheticals “what if” questions that tickle your mind into thinking from other perspectives and challenge you to question your premises. Imagining hypotheticals goes beyond simple thinking skills that require only memorization, description of an observable event or situation, or even analysis of facts and concrete events. Because hypotheticals pose questions about what isn’t, what hasn’t happened, or what isn’t likely to ever happen, they challenge the imagination in new ways and sharpen creative thinking and practical intelligence.

For instance, you’ve never considered the implications of human flight because it’s impossible, so there is a world of thoughts that have remained unexplored. How would traffic lights work, what kind of licensing process would be required, would we still have cars and airplanes, and how would safety work? Now, how would those rules and laws apply to normal traffic situations in the present day? Think through the realities of how everything would fit together—it’s no small feat!

Hypothetical situations taken to the extreme are thought experiments, and Albert Einstein in particular was known to use these. He called them Gedankenexperiments, which is German for “thought experiments.”

A thought experiment, in a more general context, is essentially playing out a “what if” scenario to its end. It’s acting as if a theory or hypothesis was true, diving deep into the ramifications and seeing what happens to your “what if” scenario under intense scrutiny. A thought experiment allows you to analyze interesting premises you could never achieve in reality and make new leaps of logic and discovery because you can consider possibilities that current knowledge doesn’t yet reach.

Suppose the problem situation is needing to exit a room. The conventional ways to do so are to walk out of the door or jump out of the window. But what if the door is blocked by a raging fire and the room is on the tenth floor of the building? These conditions have now rendered your conventional solutions fatal. You can only get out of the room either by finding a way to kill that fire or by having the capacity to survive a fall of several hundred feet. Something in this scenario needs to drastically change its usage or definition, or it will break entirely. This is the essence of the thought experiment. Suppose this happens. What happens next? And then? And then?

For example, one of the most famous thought experiments is Schrödinger’s cat, which was first proposed by physicist Erwin Schrödinger.

In his thought experiment, he sealed a cat inside a box along with two things: a radioactive element and a vial of poison. There is a 50 percent chance that the radioactive element will decay over the hour, and if it does, then the poison will be released, automatically killing the cat.

But in the 50 percent chance the radioactive element does not decay, the cat will remain alive. Because of the equal probabilities, Schrödinger argued that the cat was simultaneously alive and dead in the box. Without getting into the weeds too much, this is a clear paradox because it is impossible for something to be in two different states simultaneously, being dependent on a random molecular event that wasn’t sure to occur.

In other words, the Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment proved that there were constraints of current quantum physics theories and certainly gaps in the knowledge of how they were applied. This never could have been something observable or testable, and a simple thought experiment was able to describe it.

Thought experiments were one of Einstein’s superpowers. He could imagine a scenario, play it out mentally with shocking accuracy and detail, and then extract the subtle conclusions that lay within.

One of Einstein’s most famous Gedankenexperiments begins with a simple premise: what would happen if you chased and then eventually caught up with and rode a beam of light through space? In theory, once you caught up to the beam of light, it would appear to be frozen next to you because you are moving at the same speed. Just like if you are walking at the same pace as a car driving next to you, there is no acceleration (the relative velocities are the same), so the car would appear to be stuck to your side.

The only problem was that this was an impossible proposition at the turn of the century. If you catch up to the light and the light appears to be frozen right next to you, then it is inherently impossible for it to be light because of the difference in speeds. It ceases to be light at that moment. This means one of the rules of physics was broken or disproved with this elementary thought.

Therefore, one of the assumptions that underlay physics at the time had to change, and Einstein realized that the assumption of time as a constant needed to shift. This directly laid the path for relativity. The closer you get to the speed the light, the more time becomes different for you—relative to an outside observer.

This thought experiment allowed Einstein to challenge the convention and eventually disprove what were thought to be set-in-stone rules set forth by Isaac Newton’s three laws of energy and matter. This thought experiment was instrumental in realizing that people should have questioned old models and fundamental “rules” instead of trying to conform their theories to them.