What if Albert Einstein had a smartphone?

We recently received this month’s PJ Library book, “On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein” by Jennifer Berne. The book, which has beautiful illustrations by Vladimir Radunsky, focuses on Einstein’s tendency to spend a lot of time thinking and learning. As a young boy, he received a compass from his father and after examining it, “suddenly he knew there were mysteries in the world hidden and silent, unknown and unseen.”

That led him to asking lots of questions and a lifetime of wondering, reading and learning. The book follows his journey from being a “different” kid that nobody understood to a genius of his generation – and beyond.


After learning about all the time Einstein spent thinking and examining the world around him, I realized that the practice of doing that seems to be diminishing from our world. Even when doing something simple and brief as standing in line at the grocery store, it seems people are more likely to stand there staring at their phones rather than engage with anyone around them, read the tabloid headlines or even just gaze off into the distance as they think about something.

I’m not immune from this practice, as I find myself glancing at my phone for a brief distraction if I find myself without something to do.  I see my kids planning their day around their TV or video game time. On a good day, they get so caught up in whatever game their playing – whether it be playacting with their stuffed animals or toys, creating comic books, playing sports or filming movies with invented story lines  – that they forget to watch the clock for when they can return to screen time.

Do we ever just sit and think?

We went on a walk over the weekend and my 7-year-old stopped to check out a bead he found among the rocks. This evening as were about to pull into our driveway, my 9-year-old asked for my phone to take a picture of a moth outside his window. Although sometimes my first reaction is impatience because we are on our way to do something, I’m grateful that they still take the time to notice the world around us and examine it and want to share their discovery with me.

But how often do we actually just sit around and think? I find I do most of my thinking while I’m driving, as I’m in the car about 80 minutes each day. I often work on songs, singing parts over and over again until I find just the right word. Sometimes I rework articles in my head and plan to make the changes when I get back on the computer. But outside of the car, I find that I have trouble really concentrating on big thoughts without getting interrupted or becoming distracted by tasks that needs to get done.

What will this mean for future generations?

We have so much information available at our fingertips, it’s truly amazing. Someone like Einstein or Abraham Lincoln (I just read a biography about him with my youngest son for a book report) who spent so much time reading and learning about so many subjects would have likely done the same with the Internet, in addition to books.

But what about coming up with new ideas? What about simply thinking?

A study published last year, “Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity.” appears to confirm the impact of smartphones on cognition (the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses).

The study concludes:

One’s smartphone is more than just a phone, a camera, or a collection of apps. It is the one thing that connects everything—the hub of the connected world. The presence of one’s smartphone enables on-demand access to information, entertainment, social stimulation, and more. However, our research suggests that these benefits—and the dependence they engender—may come at a cognitive cost.

With all the progress that technology has brought us, will we pay in other ways? What effect will the constant access to smartphones have on this generation? Will there be books not written, films not made or discoveries left undiscovered because nobody had any time to think about them?


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