From the speed of light to E = mc² to general relativity and more, no scientist in history has contributed more to human knowledge than Albert Einstein. Yet many others were working on the same sets of problems, and they may have made the same key advances even if Einstein were never present. If Einstein had never existed, however, would science have still advanced to its present state by today? It’s a fascinating question to explore.

If you ask the average person to name one scientist from any time or place in history, one of the most common names you’re likely to hear is Albert Einstein. The iconic physicist was responsible for a remarkable number of scientific advances during the 20th century, and perhaps single-handedly overthrew the Newtonian physics that had dominated scientific thought for more than 200 years. His most famous equation, E = mc², is so prolific that even people who don’t know what it means can recite it. He won the Nobel Prize for advances in quantum physics. And his most successful idea — the general theory of relativity, our theory of gravity — remains undefeated in all tests more than 100 years after Einstein first proposed it.

But what if Einstein had never existed? Would others have come along and made precisely the same advances? Would those advances have come quickly, or would they have taken such a long time that some of them might not yet have occurred? Would it have taken a genius of equal magnitude to bring his great achievements to fruition? Or do we severely overestimate just how rare and unique Einstein was, elevating him to an undeserved position in our minds based on the fact that he was simply in the right place at the right time with the right set of skills? It’s a fascinating question to explore. Let’s dive in.

Physics before Einstein

Einstein had what’s known as his “miracle year” in 1905, when he published a series of papers that would go on to revolutionize a number of areas in physics. But just prior to that, a great number of advances had recently occurred that threw many long-held assumptions about the Universe into great doubt. For over 200 years, Isaac Newton had stood unchallenged in the realm of mechanics: both in the terrestrial and celestial realms. His law of universal gravitation applied just as well to objects in the Solar System as it did to balls rolling down a hill, or cannonballs fired from a cannon.

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