What We Can Learn About Product Development from Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity

In February, the scientific community was abuzz with news about the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) and gravitational waves. Two black holes had collided, causing an explosion, and for the first time scientists had powerful enough equipment to trace the subsequent ripple in space-time – proving Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity to be true.

Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves in 1915. He theorized that massive accelerating objects, such as black holes, had the ability to warp space-time. The resulting ripples would move like ‘waves’ radiating away from the sources of disruption.

What initially started as an idea, would take Einstein over a decade of experimentation, discovery, and revision to complete. However, his general theory of relativity would ultimately revolutionize the way the world thinks about space, time, mass, energy, and gravity.

Think of the general theory of relativity as a product. Einstein, the “product owner”, started with an idea. He wanted to provide a better understanding of the physical world. We can learn about product development from his process of trial and error, his willingness to completely overhaul and rework equations, and his reliance upon the work of mathematicians and other scholars in the field of relativity to complete his theory.

Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity: His First “Product Iteration”

A brief timeline:

In 1687, Sir Isaac Newton laid a foundation for the study of relativity when he published Principia, introducing a set of equations that described the physical world around us. Among these equations was Newton’s law of universal gravitation.

Einstein would eventually dispute Newton’s calculations of space and time as absolutes, arguing that the two formed a single entity called space-time.

1854, Bernhard Riemann presented geometric ideas that would provide a foundation for calculating the four-dimensional geometry of space-time.

In 1865, James Clerk Maxwell published a set of equations that described the mixed phenomena of electricity, magnetism and light – otherwise known as electromagnetism. Quoting Einstein, “the special theory of relativity owes its origins to Maxwell’s equations of the electromagnetic field.”

In 1895, H.A. Lorentz studied Maxwell’s work, and determined that a change in material objects depends on its motion relative to absolute space. Lorentz also discovered the existence of ‘time dilation,’ which referred to the slowing down of physical processes. He concluded that no object could move faster than the speed of light.

In 1904, Henri Poincaré refined Lorentz’s work and used the term ‘principle relativity’ to describe the relativity of motion in all laws of physics.    

In 1905, Einstein published two principles of special relativity: 1. The laws of physics appear the same to all observers 2. The speed of light is unchanging. He also concluded that space and time were not absolutes, but instead one entity: space-time.

It was during this time that he developed his famous equation: E=MC2

Although his special theory of relativity was met with praise, it had limitations. The theory could only be applied to special cases; for example, observers had to be moving with a constant velocity. It didn’t take acceleration into account.

Einstein didn’t notice these limitations until 1907 – two years after his publication. However, rather than settle on his theory’s success, and ignore the glaring limitations, he decided to use what he’d learned to develop a more comprehensive, or “general,” theory of relativity.

Key takeaway: In product development, it takes time and interaction to fully understand a product. Even after a successful product launch, there will always be room to make improvements.

Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity: Sometimes the Answer is Right in Front of You

Einstein spent a decade working on his general theory of relativity. He wrestled with ideas, made mistakes, took wrong turns, and experimented with different mathematical approaches.   

During this time, he also dealt with divorce, raced an increasingly fierce competitor in the field of mathematics, and faced the start of WWI.

In 1913, he unwittingly had the correct linearized field equations. Although he had all the pieces, it took him two additional years to finalize his theory.

In 1915, he published his theory of general relativity. “In it, he determined that massive objects cause a distortion in space-time, which is felt as gravity.” Needless to say, it was very well received.

In 1921, he won the Nobel prize for physics.

In 2016, scientists announced the existence of gravitational waves, proving Einstein’s general theory of relativity to be true.  

Key takeaway: It’s easy to overlook the details, but it’s the details that take a good product and make it revolutionary. Take the time to interact with your product, test every feature and make sure you’re offering the best value for your customers.

Do You Have a Product in Mind?

The more time you spend with your product, the more you can understand it. The more you understand your product, the more improvements you can make to it. The more improvements you make to your product, the stronger it will be.

It’s hard to predict a product’s ultimate potential. In 1905, Einstein didn’t know his study of relativity would eventually revolutionize modern physics, but it did.


Do you have an idea for a product? Let us know. We’d love to help you get started.

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