As my novel about Charles Darwin’s family goes to market, I’m thinking about the differences in the two men’s methodology. Darwin was an experimental biologist, such that his home, Down House, was filled with tanks of salt water, plants that intrigued him, animals that he was skeletonizing in potash. The saltwater tanks were filled with rotting plants as he tried to figure out how seeds might have migrated from one continent to another. He was enthralled with carnivorous plants which his wife quipped he would somehow make into an animal. The animal skeletons helped him theorize how one animal might have morphed into another, say a flying squirrel into a bat. We can only imagine the stenchall over the house, as sometimes, such as when he was studying the impact of music on various species, say earthworms, he’d place them in containers on his wife’s piano.
Einstein, by contrast, avoided experimentation whenever possible. He preferred using the data from other people’s experiments and conducting his science in his head. Thought experiments, he called them. This preference caused trouble with Heinrich Weber, premier physicist at the Polytechnic in Zurich where Einstein went to undergraduate school. In physics lab, Einstein circumvented the actual experiment, solving the problem in another, more theoretical way, by mathematical calculation, for example. When Weber complained, his lab assistant defended Einstein, insisting the alternate method was interesting, and furthermore, produced the correct result.