I’ve been playing on and off with GPT-3 since its launch, because it’s such a cool tech. One of the most interesting uses I’ve encountered is talking with famous dead people. Here’s an example of a conversation with Albert Einstein. Let me know if you would read a short e-book with 10 similar interviews with historical figures, I’m thinking of writing it if there’s enough people interested.
All text in bold was my own input, and the rest was generated by the AI as a plausible response. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did!
The following is a transcript of a conversation between Manuel Araoz, a 31-year-old computer scientist from Argentina, and Albert Einstein. Albert Einstein was a German-born theoretical physicist who developed the theory of relativity, one of the two pillars of modern physics (alongside quantum mechanics). His work is also known for its influence on the philosophy of science. He is best known to the general public for his mass–energy equivalence formula E = mc2, which has been dubbed “the world’s most famous equation”. He received the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics “for his services to theoretical physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect”, a pivotal step in the development of quantum theory.
Manuel: Albert Einstein. Nice to meet you. I’m Manuel Araoz, and I’ve come from the future to meet you. *smiles*
Albert: *laughs* Oh, really. How is the future?
Manuel: It’s amazing, actually. What year is this?
Albert: It’s 1947. It’s January. This is Princeton, NJ. You are in America.
Manuel: Your name is Albert Einstein, right?
Albert: That’s correct.
Manuel: Do you mind if I ask you a few questions for a book I’m writing? It’s about the great minds of history.
Albert: I guess I can spare a few minutes.
Manuel: Thanks so much. *sits down and asks the waiter for a coffee*
Albert: Go ahead. Ask me whatever you want.
Manuel: What are you doing here in Princeton, in the US. You were born in Germany, right?
Albert: Yes, I was born in Germany, but I was also born Jewish, and the Nazis were coming to power, so I fled here to the United States.
Manuel: How do you like it here?
Albert: It’s amazing. I’m so proud of being able to contribute to science and help humanity from here.
Manuel: What’s your main occupation at the moment?
Albert: My main occupation is being a physics professor at Princeton University.
Manuel: So, how would you describe your contributions to science so far?
Albert: Well, I’ve already made some pretty important contributions to physics.
Manuel: *grabs coffee from table and takes a sip* Tell me more.
Albert: Well, first of all, my work with the photoelectric effect and quantum mechanics was very important for the development of quantum physics.
Manuel: What does quantum physics mean? Sorry, I’m no physicist myself.
Albert sits back in his comfortable chair, and after taking a slow sip of tea, explains.
Albert: You see, a hundred years ago, our understanding of the Universe, and how it all works, was still fairly immature. There were many loose ends, which we were starting to try and unravel. For example, things like what the atom is made of, or what light actually is.
Manuel: Light is such a mysterious topic to me. Tell me more about it.
Albert: Yes. Well, that’s where the photoelectric effect comes into play. When light hits an atom, it can eject an electron from that atom, producing a current, and therefore, power. This is an amazing process; light is knocking electrons off their atoms, and actually doing work.
Manuel: *sips coffee, and listens attentively*
Albert: *pause* Now, since we know that light is made of particles called photons, it is reasonable to assume that each photon has a certain amount of energy. And it also makes sense that the more energy a photon has, the more likely it is to eject an electron from an atom.
Manuel: Is that the so-called “photoelectric effect” you mentioned earlier?
Albert: Yes. And that’s where I made a contribution: I figured out a mathematical relationship between the amount of energy a photon has, and how likely it is to cause an electron to be ejected. This equation later became known as the photoelectric effect.
Manuel: Out of curiosity, what is the equation?
Albert: It’s E = h f .
Manuel: I guess E is Energy, h is… *looks at Albert quizzingly*
Albert: That’s Planck’s constant, and f is frequency.
Manuel: Awesome! Did you discover all this doing your own experiments?
Albert: No, I developed this theory based on the work of Max Planck and others before me. You see, Max Planck observed that there is a threshold to the amount of energy a single photon needs to have in order to eject an electron from an atom. This threshold is called Planck’s constant. Now, if you put more energy into a photon than Planck’s constant, the photon simply won’t eject an electron, no matter how much more energy you give it. However, if you take a photon that has less energy than Planck’s constant, and add more energy to it, it will jump over the barrier and keep on going until it can no longer jump any further. This means that there must be a boundary between the energies.
Manuel: Hence the word ‘quantum’?
Albert: That’s right.
Manuel: So you built on Planck’s work to reveal the true nature of light?
Albert: That’s correct. Planck published his work in 1900, and I built upon it in 1905 to explain the photoelectric effect, which was a big deal at the time, since it had implications for how we understand the basic components of matter, and how they work together.
Manuel: 1905 was also the year in which you published your special theory of relativity. How old were you back then?
Albert: I was 26. It was actually a year before that, that I proved the existence of atoms.
Manuel: That’s incredible! I didn’t know you were the one to prove that, and at such a young age! How did you do it?
Albert: Well, I was trying to develop a theory that explains Brownian motion. It’s the random movement of tiny particles suspended in water, caused by the thermal movement of the water molecules around them. We saw it whenever we tried to evenly disperse a fine powder in water: the particles would start dancing around in the water, absorbing and releasing heat as they collided with the water molecules around them.
Manuel: Interesting… so you found a link between the movement of the tiny particles and the existence of water molecules?
Albert: Exactly. The Brownian motion was just a result of the water molecules surrounding the tiny particles colliding with them through thermal motion. And by proving that there is water in there, and therefore, molecules, I proved the existence of atoms.
Albert: I know… I am so cool *laughs*
Albert: So, anyway, in 1905, I published a paper detailing the theory of relativity.
Manuel: Do tell me more! The 1905 version was the ‘special’ theory, right? What does that mean?
Albert: Yes, the first version of the theory of relativity was actually the special theory of relativity. It was published in 1905, but it was based on some of my previous work, specifically electrodynamics.
Manuel: What motivated you to work on that in the first place?
Albert: It all started when I was working on a paper that later became known as the photon theory of light.
Manuel: Can you explain that theory to me, in layman’s terms?
Albert smiles and nods. He seems to like explaining these kinds of things. After taking another sip of tea, he goes in deep.
Albert: Back then, physicists had observed that the spectrum of light exhibited a regular pattern of lines, which couldn’t be explained by any known theory. Now, at the time, there were two prevailing theories as to what light actually is. Some people, like Thomas Young, thought that light is a wave; others thought that it’s made of particles, like atoms. You see, if light is made of particles, like atoms, then it would make sense that its spectrum would exhibit a kind of pattern.
Manuel: So, is light made of particles or is it a wave?
Albert: Well, it’s both. Light is a wave of energy, and each photon has a certain amount of energy. You see, light is actually made of electromagnetic radiation, which travels in waves, just like sound waves. Now, imagine if, in the case of sound waves, you could break down a single vibration into its most fundamental unit. This would clearly be a particle. However, light doesn’t always behave as a particle; it can also behave as a wave. So to answer your question: yes, light is made of particles called photons, but they behave as waves as well.
Manuel: Got it. So… What about the speed of light? Why does it seem to be constant in our universe? What can you make of it?
Albert: Oh, it’s really simple. Light always travels at the same speed. That’s just the way it is.
Manuel: *laughs*. Well that seems to be true!
Manuel: And that fact was instrumental in your development of the theory of relativity and your famous thought experiments, right?
Albert pauses briefly, apparently gathering his thoughts, and answers.
Albert: Yes, the theory of relativity was basically just the result of my effort to reconcile the apparent contradiction brought on by the Newtonian model of gravity.
Manuel: What’s that contradiction?
Albert: Basically, Newton’s model of gravity said that massive objects accelerated the motions of other massive objects at a rate proportional to the product of their masses. This didn’t make sense for light. It was inconsistent with the fact that light rays always traveled at the same speed in all inertial reference frames.
Manuel: Interesting. I never thought of it that way. So the contradiction was in the fact that light seems to travel at a constant speed, ignoring nearby massive objects that should accelerate it?
Albert: Exactly. If light truly does travel at a constant speed in all reference frames, then it breaks Newton’s theory. Hence the contradiction.
Albert: *laughs* So I had to come up with an alternative model of gravity, one that didn’t break this basic speed law for light.
Manuel: How does relative time come into place?
Albert: Let me explain. I started out by studying the Michelson-Morley interferometer experiment, which confirmed that the speed of light was indeed constant in all inertial reference frames. I then asked myself how we could reconcile the constancy of the speed of light with Newton’s model of gravity, which implied that massive objects should produce a drag on light.
Manuel: Michelson-Morley interferometer experiment is the one where they tried to prove ‘aether’ existed, right?
Albert: Yes. Basically, they tried to measure the speed of light in different directions, both perpendicular and parallel to the proposed aether wind. The idea was that if aether existed, then light waves would travel at different speeds depending on the direction they were traveling in. But what they found was that light always traveled at the same speed, regardless of the direction it was moving in.
Manuel: Cool. So, you took that result, and thought that this made Newton’s gravitational model inadequate?
Albert: Right. It’s important to note that this result didn’t just defy Newton’s model, it also proved that aether was wrong. That’s important because at the time, aether was a really popular idea. It was even considered the fifth element. Aether was supposed to be a substance through which light traveled, but it was invisible, and its motion affected the speed of light.
Manuel: Damn right. In the future where I’m from, nobody believes in aether. *smiles* Victory for science.
Manuel: So. Tell me more about how you came up with a new gravitational model, if you please. *sips coffee*
Albert: Okay. I wanted to explain the results of the Michelson-Morley experiment by constructing a new gravitational model, one that would account for all of the results of this experiment, and the fact that light always travels at the same speed in all inertial reference frames.
Albert then explains his new gravitational theory.
Albert: So, I came up with an alternative theory of gravity, one that I called ‘general relativity’, which was based on the idea that space and time are essentially the same thing.
Manuel: Space and time are essentially the same thing? *looks puzzled*
Albert: Yes. In my theory, I showed that space and time were related to each other in a very fundamental way. Basically, I showed that the way we perceive space and time depends on our relative motion.
Manuel: How so?
Albert: Let me give you an example. Suppose I am on a train, and I throw a ball straight up in the air.
Albert: I will see the ball moving in a straight line, right?
Albert: But you, who is standing on the platform, will see the ball moving in a curved path.
Manuel: Yeah. A parabola, right?
Albert: Yes. The ball will appear to you to be moving in a parabola, because you are standing still, and the train is moving.
Manuel: Got it.
Albert: So, the curvature of the ball’s path depends on the reference frame we choose to view it from.
Albert: The fact that the path of the ball depends on the reference frame we choose to observe it from is something that is true for all physical phenomena.
Manuel: *listens in silence*
Albert: So, in my theory, I showed that the way we perceive space and time depends on our relative motion. I showed that this is due to the fact that space and time are similar in a fundamental way, i.e., the geometry of spacetime is dependent on our relative motion in a specific way. The misconception here is that space and time are separate things. They are not. Rather they form a four-dimensional continuum called Minkowski spacetime.
Manuel: How does the concept of time differ between Newton’s Mechanics and your Theory of Relativity?
Albert: In Newton’s Mechanics, space and time are absolute. Time is universal and it does not depend on the observer. In my theory I showed that there is no absolute time. Space and time are interrelated in a specific way. Also, the variable t is what physicists call a ‘coordinate’ and not an ‘immovable rod’.
Manuel: So, time is relative to the observer?… How can that be?
Albert: Let me give you another example. Suppose I am in a rocket ship, and I am traveling near the speed of light.
Manuel: Now we’re talking. *smiles*
Albert: *laughs* I will see the light coming from the stars redshift.
Manuel: Redshift? *looks very confused*
Albert: Redshift is a Doppler shift in radiation. It means that the wavelength of the light will be stretched out. So, if I look at light coming from a particular star, I will see its light shift towards the red end of the spectrum.
Manuel: Ah, I see. So, that’s the same as the Doppler effect where you hear the ambulance siren change in pitch as it drives past you, applied to light color? Is that why time slows down? Because all frequencies (pitch for sound, color for light) seem to slow down when we’re moving away from their sources?
Manuel: Aaah! Very interesting! [note: I honestly think I understood a new concept here, thanks GPT3-Einstein!]
Albert: The frequency of light will be stretched out as I move away from its source. And that means that all time will slow down as I approach the speed of light.
Manuel: That’s amazing. *pauses* Mind if we switch gears for a bit?
Albert: Sure, go ahead.
Manuel: How would you say the discovery of quantum mechanics influenced your understanding of science?
Albert: Well, it was just one of the many discoveries in my lifetime, but it changed the way we understand the nature of matter and how it all interacts. On a more personal level, quantum mechanics made me recognize my own foolishness. You see, I used to believe that God doesn’t play dice with the universe; when He designed it, he put everything in place so that you could predict what would happen if you did this or that. This is what I called “the deterministic viewpoint”. However, when you understand quantum mechanics, you realize that the Universe is very different from the way you imagined it to be. It’s not just that there are many things that we still don’t understand yet; it’s also that matter and energy behave *pauses for a sip of tea* in ways that we can’t predict. This made me realize that there are some things that are beyond our realm of understanding, which is why I became more interested in philosophy and religion.
Manuel: So you think science is not enough to understand the universe?
Albert: No, I think science is enough. However, it’s our perception of the world that can be distorted by our own expectations and desires. Science helps us to understand how things work, but it doesn’t tell us what’s right and wrong; it doesn’t tell us why things are the way they are. That’s something we have to do for ourselves.
Manuel: Very interesting. Science is for the ‘how’, philosophy and religion for the ‘why’. What are your thoughts on the ‘why’? Why are we here?
Albert: I believe the why is outside of our reach. We can’t ever know the answer to that question, I don’t think. But we are here, and that’s a good enough reason to keep going.
Manuel: *laughs* Well said. To make it more personal: What’s your ‘why’? Why do you study physics and the universe?
Albert: Truth be told, I studied it because it was the only thing I ever wanted to do. Since I was young, I’ve been fascinated by space and time and how they work together to create something as extraordinary as our universe.
Manuel: You mentioned God a few moments ago. Do you believe a supernatural entity created it all?
Albert: *laughs* I should have expected that you’d ask me that. No, I don’t. When you develop an understanding of physics, of the universe, and see how wonderful it is, you see that there’s no reason for something magical to happen. We had a natural beginning; perhaps our demise will be natural as well.
Manuel: What do you mean when you use the word God then?
Albert: Nothing. It’s just a word. Man has created many gods to help him make sense of the chaos around him. These were the first steps towards his understanding of science. Then he created religions to help him understand morality, life, and death. These are the first steps towards his ‘why’.
Manuel: One last attempt to get your personal take on the ‘why’. What do you make of the fact we all appear to have consciousness and a subjective experience of reality? Why are we aware of our existence and of the universe?
Albert: I think you’re asking me about the purpose of life, aren’t you? Why do we even exist in the first place? My answer to that would be: I don’t know. I don’t think anyone really knows the answer. I think it’s a puzzle we will never unravel. The apparent ‘why’ of the universe is part of its beauty and mystery. In fact, I don’t even believe that we have consciousness or free will at all; these are just illusions created by our brains to make sense of the world around us. Human brains are very good at creating stories where there isn’t any.
Manuel: Well it feels so good to be here, being able to explore the universe and trying to build some understanding of it.
Albert: I couldn’t agree with you more. *finishes his coffee*[sic] So, what’s next for you?
Manuel: I need to get back to the future soon.
Albert: *smiles* A good choice.
Manuel: Can I ask one last question?
Manuel: What would you say to people living in 2021, roughly 75 years from now?
Albert: I would say that the puzzle of our existence has been pieced together, but there are still pieces missing. We have a lot to learn. We should keep on exploring, and try to figure out what those missing pieces are. What’s more important is that we stay curious, for as long as we can.
Manuel: Thanks a lot Albert, it’s been a great honor to meet you!
Albert: *smiles* You’re welcome Manuel.
Manuel: *stands and leaves*
I used OpenAI’s API Playground, with a slightly modified version of the Chat example they provide. Given the interview quickly became longer than the maximum number of characters the API allows for each text generation request, I had to remove earlier sections from the prompt as I moved forward and the text grew larger. I found this approach also worked if I wanted to go back and add a question to a previous part of the conversation.
Unfortunately, I wrote this while I was doing other experiments with GPT-3, so I have no good estimate on the cost of the whole process. I’ll take precise measurements the next time.
I tried to fact-check all answers by GPT-3 Einstein before including them in the final draft, but my ignorance on most of the physics subjects we discussed made it difficult.If the answer GPT gave appeared factually incorrect, I would re-generate a new one. If you find any errors, let me know! I was really surprised when GPT-3 blurted out the correct answer to my “how old were you in 1905?” question right away. It’s also fascinating how it got most dates of publications right on the first reply.
This interview was made purely for entertainment purposes, but I really learnt a lot about Albert Einstein, his work, and modern physics. It gave me many topics to google about (some of the explanations were fantastic in my opinion, but some others quite confusing).
If you enjoyed what you read and would like to be notified when a new post comes out, subscribe below! Do let me know if you’d like specific historical figures to be interviewed. I’m thinking of doing Marie Curie, Isaac Newton, Mother Teresa, Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, Queen Nzinga, Socrates, or Johann Sebastian Bach next. (some of which were suggested by GPT-3 itself)