Would Albert Einstein End Up in Academia in 2024?

Avi Loeb
5 min readMar 5, 2024


Albert Einstein in 1913, two years before formulating his General Theory of Relativity which currently describes our concept of space and time.

Imagine that you are a young Albert Einstein in Gen Z, born 120 years after the legendary scientist, with a new concept for explaining the nature of dark matter, dark energy and the origin of the Big Bang.

At age 21, you submitted for publication your first paper with your revolutionary ideas, but it was rejected by the editors. The referees argued that you must demonstrate consistency with the full plethora of data on the microwave background anisotropies, large scale structures, rotation curves of galaxies and mass profiles of clusters of galaxies. But the truth is that they never heard of your name and their default assertion is that you better demonstrate yourself in the beaten path before “rocking the boat” and maneuvering it to break new ground. You explain to the editors why your concept is novel and worth considering, but they decline publication and state that you must perform computer simulations that reproduce the well-established “successes” of the standard cosmological model before they will revisit their decision. I placed quotation marks around the term successes, because the standard model is devoid of substantive knowledge about its main constituents: the origin of the Big Bang or the nature of dark matter and dark energy.

The attention threshold is placed high for unknown innovators because the community of practicing scientists is large. Political pressure promotes regression to the mean and suppresses original thinking outside the box of two standard deviations, which is relatively narrow for large number statistics. In addition, there is a large background of crackpots promoting nonsensical models of new physics and triggering a Pavlovian reflex of automatic rejection among mainstream scientists. One way to improve the prospects for a positive reception is to collaborate with a recognized leader in the discipline and to formulate ideas in terms of the terminology that is commonly used by the community. Both methods are naturally promoted in the course of a PhD thesis with a highly regarded mentor.

If you encounter these fortunate circumstances and your paper eventually gets accepted for publication, it will most likely be ignored by mainstream physicists who are reluctant to take risks. The revolutionary concept might gain traction within a decade or two, when new data will highlight its promise. At that time, you will be lucky if anyone would remember your original paper. The scientists who will promote it based on the new data will mainly reference themselves in subsequent publications.

Mainstream practitioners justify the current academic system because they adapted to thrive in it. They secure grants for their research group in the competitive environment of a large community, by avoiding risks and proposing to improve upon work that was already done before. Members of grant allocation committees who invested their careers in the beaten path welcome such proposals, because they would make their voice louder in the echo chamber that they established over decades as “experts” of past knowledge.

I explained this social dynamic today in answer to a question by the brilliant reporter, Andréa Morris, who heard complaints by a world-renowned biologist who proposed new ideas in cosmology and encountered the characteristic responses described above.

Andréa wondered: “How can academia do better?” I replied that innovation should be encouraged not only by creating a safe space for innovators, where their ideas are evaluated and debated, but also by rewarding them for taking risks in exploring new knowledge. Science needs a new funding scheme by which innovators serve on the committees that evaluate innovative proposals. In other words, the reviewers should be drawn from the community of scientists who already received funding for risky proposals or have a demonstrated track record of path-breaking innovations in their resume. In this new scientific ecosystem, a fixed fraction of the global funding and publication space would be dedicated to the category of innovation, and the decisions on how to allocate these resources will be made by innovators rather than traditional gate-keepers.

The fraction of the global resources allocated to innovation could be as small as 20%, but it should not be much smaller. Most importantly, these resources should be controlled by open-minded scientists and not by traditional thinkers.

My advice to young scientists is to pursue a diversified portfolio similar to that adopted in financial investments, as I suggested in a Nature article, published in 2010. Back then, I wrote: “Astrophysics has both safe and risky topics — I like to think of them as ‘bonds’ (low risk), ‘stocks’ (medium risk) and ‘venture capital’ (VC; high risk). The best approach for fledgling researchers is to diversify their academic portfolio, always making sure to devote some of it to innovative projects with risky but potentially highly profitable returns. The average research-time investment strategy for postdocs in astrophysics is 80% bonds, 15% stocks and 5% VC. But I recommend instead 50% bonds, 30% stocks and 20% VC on average, with individual choices depending on circumstances.”

Pablo Picasso started painting realistically in order to master the art of painting in the traditional way it was practiced before him. But as his self-confidence grew, he ventured into the new realm of abstract paintings and pioneered the Cubism movement. Tenure in academia offers the foundation of security needed for the transition to disruptive innovation.

In addition, academia should respond to new opportunities for reinvigorating fields that become less creative over time. Instead of debating ancient Greek philosophy, philosophers should debate how to create new ethical and legal rules to mitigate risks from new technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics. We should pursue innovations of the future rather than echo chambers of the past.

The current academic and federal funding systems do not encourage innovation enough, because of limited resources and political pressure to conform with popular paradigms. A 2023 article in Nature magazine was titled “Papers and patents are becoming less disruptive over time”. Based on analysis of data across six decades, the authors concluded: “We find that papers and patents are increasingly less likely to break with the past in ways that push science and technology in new directions.”

If research in academia will not be restructured, it will become less relevant to the future of society. This would mean that young Einsteins will choose to work in the “for-profit” sector, where innovation thrives. Here’s hoping that the academic community will correct course and follow Robert Frost’s wisdom:

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.”


Image credit: Chris Michel (October 2023)

Avi Loeb is the head of the Galileo Project, founding director of Harvard University’s — Black Hole Initiative, director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and the former chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University (2011–2020). He is a former member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and a former chair of the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies. He is the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth” and a co-author of the textbook “Life in the Cosmos”, both published in 2021. His new book, titled “Interstellar”, was published in August 2023.



Avi Loeb

Avi Loeb is the Baird Professor of Science and Institute director at Harvard University and the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial” and "Interstellar".