Follow me, this post starts with TCS, and ends with E = mc2.
At The Container Store, one of our 7 Foundation Principles is:
Intuition does not come to an unprepared mind. You need to train before it happens. (See John explain this below).
This post proves that it isn’t just “training” that leads to intuition, but also trains.
I was a commuter on the Metro in Washington, D.C. for 4 years. This beautifully designed system that opened just under 40 years ago and is the second-busiest in the country (after NYC). It actually just won the American Institute of Architects Twenty-Five Year award this year.*
By not driving to work, I was able to experience the life around me. I found new music and art. I read books over others shoulders and took in the sites and sounds. It gave me time to breathe and observe. Even for only 15 minutes each way.
Since moving to Columbus, I have lost that time. I now spend many mornings rushing last minute out the door while trying to skillfully avert death and traffic lights. Public transit saves lives. In fact, trains, and the time they allow for reflection, lead to world-changing ideas and science.
The Periodic Table
Dmitri Mendeleev, seen above with a draft of his periodic table, had a hard life growing up in Siberia.** His father became blind and later died when Dmitri was only 13. His mother’s glass factory burned to the ground soon after.
He spent his life riding on trains across Russia and Europe. At the same time that Ulysses S. Grant was being sworn in as the 18th President in America, Mendeleev was solving chemistry’s biggest riddle.
While riding trains, he would play a solitaire-like game with handmade cards that he had drawn the known elements on (around 60 of them). This was not just to pass the time, but to try to organize them. A system alluded him until February of 1869. Mendeleev felt close. For three days and nights he played this game – even missing a train to keep going. The legend has it that he fell asleep and dreamed about the elements. He woke up and scribbled the first version of his Periodic Table on a piece of paper. Other significances of his version here:
Were it not for riding trains across 19th century Europe and Russia, Mendeleev’s intuition would have been stunted. He needed to train before it happened. The Periodic Table now looks like this***:
Theory of Relativity
Albert Einstein is easily the world’s most recognizable and well-known scientist of the 20th century. Equally notable is his Theory of Relativity (he first published about special relativity in 1905 – about when the picture above was taken, he 26 years old).
In basic terms, Einstein discovered that measurements are variable based on the velocities of the observer (except the speed of light which is constant) and that space and time should be considered together.
Einstein, like other late 1800s/early 1900s inhabitants, rode trains and other public transit quite frequently. He began to connect some observations.
Sometimes, when you are still on a train and you or the train next to you moves, it is difficult to determine who is moving until some background reference is noticed (like noise or passing scenery). Similarly, a boy tossing a ball up and down on a train sees the ball as going just up and down. An outside observer to the train sees that ball and the boy traveling at 60 mph!
Einstein goes on to lay the groundwork for time travel when observing a clock tower while his trolley moved away from it: What if this trolley moved faster, close to the speed of the light reflecting the hands of the clock tower? How would the clock tower time differ from his wristwatch? The seconds tick by slower on the tower. (check here around the 4 minute to 11 minute mark for an explanation).
Einstein needed trains and trolleys to make these observations.
Public transit is not just a great way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or avoid traffic. Trains, buses, streetcars, and trolleys allow us to breathe and observe. Put down your smartphone. Look around. What you see may change the world.
Intuition does not come to an unprepared mind. You need to train before it happens.
talk to you soon
*The award is “conferred on a structure that has stood the test of time by embodying architectural excellence for 25 to 35 years. Projects must demonstrate excellence in function, in the distinguished execution of its original program, and in the creative aspects of its statement by today’s standards.”
** See Malcolm Gladwell’s David & Goliath for a discussion on why this may be a predicting factor in Mendeleev’s greatness.
***Notice the bottom row of the periodic table, Md with an atomic number 101, is Mendelevium, named in his honor. Oddly, Mendelevium is a synthetic element created when Einsteinium is bombarded with alpha particles.