Albert vs. Einstein - big picture or big data?

With the premiere of the National Geographic TV series ‘Genius’ about Einstein, the famed Professor has been back in the news. And as we get ready for the London leg of the Salesforce World Tour I was reflecting on their AI offering named after the great man himself. I’ve recently written on some of the limitations of big data in the enterprise space, but one thing struck me about how Einstein reached his breakthroughs in relation to big data.

It is well documented that Einstein thought in pictures rather than words. He didn’t achieve his great breakthroughs in the lab, but by performing visual experiments in his head. Einstein’s genius was to realise that language wasn’t enough to help him understand the wonders of nature. And whilst he knew that maths was the language of nature, the best way to grasp the true essence of nature was to visualise the maths in the real world. This started him on a journey of a series of Gedankenexperimenten – “thought experiments” to help him articulate his famous theory of relativity.


In one of these thought experiments, Einstein visualised lightning striking both ends of a moving train at exactly the same time. To someone on the train itself the simultaneous strikes would not appear so. Because the train is speeding forward, the lighting strike at the front of the train would be seen a moment before the lightning strike at the back of the train. But someone viewing the same lightning strikes from alongside the track would see them as simultaneous. With this simple visualisation Einstein realised that simultaneity is relative to your state of motion. He then deduced that there is no such thing as absolute time. Time is relative.

Thinking on Einstein’s use of visualisations, I realised a major challenge we face with big data: So much data is quantitative and language-based that our qualitative, visual intelligence falls through the cracks. We have tools to visualise this data, but it’s pictures of numbers. Now that video has become the dominant consumer media, it seems remarkable to me that organisations haven’t woken up to the power of the visual. Humans are visual creatures – 90% of the information we take in is visual – yet we continue to rely on throwing increasing computational power at trying to extract intelligence from quantitative data. Seeing is understanding, and we need to explore ways to bring the awesome power of visual intelligence into the enterprise world. If that visual intelligence can be used to add high value, qualitative data in systems like Salesforce’s exciting Einstein, maybe we’ll learn to become a little more like the great man himself.