Thought Experiments: How to think like Einstein

“Imagination is more important than knowledge.”--Albert Einstein

You can thank Isaac Newton for inventing calculus. Or not. But think of what you can do once you understand how he invented calculus.

Here’s a powerful mind trick that great scientists have been using for centuries.

Newton used a version of this technique when expounding the laws of motion. It’s well known that Einstein used this tool extensively to develop his understanding of the universe. By some accounts, this is the secret that enabled Darwin to come up with the theory of evolution.

Albert Einstein used thought experiments to uncover secrets of the universe
Einstein source: Wikipedia Commons

You can use it to master biology, physics, or just about any other topic you study.

When Einstein wanted to understand the nature of light, he imagined himself moving at the speed of light. Then he asked, “What would I see? What would happen to my reflection in a mirror?”

These musings are known as “thought experiments.” They allow you to test out situations that are physically impossible.

But you can use thought experiments just to get clearer on important concepts in your chemistry class. Here’s how.


When you don’t understand something about science, you can use a thought experiment to change one fact or law.

1.       Start with something you understand, and relate it to something you don’t understand. For example: ”I don’t understand how light causes electrons to become excited, but I understand that light is a form of energy used by plants.”

2.       Change one of the rules: “What if plants couldn’t use the energy from light?”

3.       Imagine the results of the change: The leaves would just soak up the energy without using it, like sunlight shining on the roof of a building or a car. The energy would turn into heat.”

4.       Relate the results back to something you know: Heat is defined as the motion of molecules. So if the sunlight causes molecular movement, perhaps that movement could be harnessed in some way. Maybe to power a chemical reaction. Like the light-dependent reactions in photosynthesis.

Ureka! Now the lights turn on, and you “get it.” Light causes chlorophyll molecules to shed electrons, triggering a cascade of chemical reactions that produce sugar out of carbon dioxide.

That’s the power of a thought experiment. Plus, you might pick up some new and useful ideas along the way.

When I was unclear about the definition of “force” in my physics class, I tried to imagine a force that didn’t have any acceleration. This helped me reconsider a lot of points relating to velocity, friction, mass, etc. and many things came to light.

Thought experiments might not win you a Nobel Prize right away, but they will at least help you memorize vocabulary and formulas. When you first learn a new piece of information, it is in your short-term memory. You'll forget it in an hour unless you encode it into your long-term memory.

One way to encode is by manipulating the information, thinking about it, associating it with what you already know. Thought experiments do all of this.

Use thought experiments freely and frequently.There’s a body of evidence showing that the level of concentration needed for a thought experiment is good for you. You’ll produce alpha waves, which can boost your energy levels, enhance your athletic ability, and maybe strengthen your immune system.

Not to mention, you’re helping yourself learn faster.

If you come across any really interesting insights or difficult problems in your thought experiments, leave a post on the forum. We would all love to hear about it.

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