How Einstein’s “Best Friend at Work” Helped Him Revolutionize Physics

by Ted Burnham

Today is National Best Friends Day! According to Gallup survey data, having a best friend at work is one of the most reliable predictors of employee engagement – and for good reason. Having colleagues that you feel close to and can rely on for advice and camaraderie isn’t just fun, it creates relationships that directly support you in reaching your potential.

Here’s one of our favorite historical examples from the Avanoo Archives – the story of how Albert Einsten’s best friend was instrumental in helping him develop the theory of special relativity.

We’ll be your work BFF! Join us for a virtual town hall or schedule a 1-on-1 demo to learn how Avanoo’s StoryApp can support your team.

By May 1905, 26-year-old Albert Einstein was fast becoming the world’s foremost theoretical physicist, having published two groundbreaking theories in just months while working as a clerk at the Swiss Patent Office.

But he wasn’t done. Days after publishing his second paper, Einstein began considering a problem that had bothered him for over ten years.

Way back in 1632, Galileo had wondered where a rock would land if you dropped it from the mast of a moving ship. Would it land next to the mast? Or just a bit behind it, depending on how far the ship had sailed while the rock was falling?

For years, physicists had known the truth: The answer was both! From the perspective of the sailor, the rock would travel straight down, landing next to the mast. But from the perspective of someone on the shore, the rock would fall at an angle.

Now Einstein wondered: What if the rock were, instead, a beam of light? How would it travel?

Einstein said his friend Michele Besso was“the best sounding board in all of Europe.”

There weren’t many people who could keep up with Einstein’s stupendous brainstorming, so he moved to Bern, Switzerland to be closer to his best friend and colleague, Michele Besso, whom he later called “the best sounding board in all of Europe.” One day, they walked home together from work while Besso listened to Einstein pondering his questions about light.

Einstein told Besso he was desperate to reconcile two opposing ideas: It had long been proven that the speed of light was constant. So how could the distance that the light travels change depending on whether the sailor or the person on the shore sees it? 

Besso and Einstein debated, poked, and prodded at the question as they walked along. How could the speed of light be constant, yet the distance the light travelled be relative?

Round and round they went, but got no closer to an answer. Eventually Einstein grew tired, announced he was giving up, and parted for home.

But later that night, as Einstein mulled upon the thought-provoking discussion with his friend, the solution suddenly clicked into place: Time. Time had to change!

As Einstein mulled upon the thought-provoking discussion with his friend, the solution suddenly clicked into place.

In that moment, Einstein’s groundbreaking theory of special relativity was born. When he met again with Besso the next morning Einstein said, “Thank you. I have completely solved the problem.”

Six weeks and many more discussions later, Einstein published his new theory with this acknowledgement: “In conclusion, let me note that my friend and colleague M. Besso steadfastly stood by me in my work on the problem here discussed, and that I am indebted to him for many a valuable suggestion.”

Einstein and Besso remained best friends for life – a testament to the power of close, supportive relationships to bring out the best in our colleagues.

While it doesn’t have to be a “best friend”, our advice today is to go out and connect with a colleague however you can. You probably won’t reinvent all of physics, but you just might find your growing friendship leads to valuable new insights for your team.


—Ted Burnham, Avanoo Lead Content Marketer

About Ted

Ted Burnham loves the power of words – to tell stories, explain big ideas, and help people connect. He is a writer, editor, multimedia producer, storyteller, and “professional combobulator”. Ted’s work has appeared on NPR, Popular Science, and elsewhere.

About Avanoo

Avanoo brings together the world’s oldest artform – storytelling – and the world’s newest technologies – AI, machine learning – to support teams in experiencing more connection, belonging, and performance. Our app makes it easy for employees to share and listen to each other’s stories wherever they are, and our insights dashboard makes it easy for leaders to understand where and how stories create lasting impact on their teams. Learn more:
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