I always like discovering that things are perhaps not quite as they seem. Peter Galison's lovely book Einstein's Clocks, Poincare's Maps has that flavor. I at least have always understood Einstein to be an isolated genius, thinking great thoughts in the obscurity of the Swiss Patent Office. But what were those patents he was reviewing in his day job? Apparently many had to do with time synchronization, a topic of great interest in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as telegraphs spread across Europe.
As Galison wrote in an interview:
Einstein, without any doubt, is the best-known scientist ever, and he occupies an astonishingly robust cultural place. He doesn't seem to come into and fall out of fashion as much as he is simply appropriated for new purposes with each generation. But one of the perennial features of Einstein-the-icon is the figure of the great mind living in a world apart, the ultimate loner.
I was standing at a train station in northern Europe admiring a line of clocks that went along the platform. And I noticed that the minute hands were all at the same point – I could just see them all lined up. I thought, "These are wonderful clocks; isn't that impressive that they can make them to hold such regularity?" Then I noticed that the second hands were clicking in synchrony too, which was startling, and I thought, "These can't be that accurate – you can't have clocks running like this that are not synchronized in some way, or else they'd get out of phase." Suddenly I wondered if Einstein had paid attention to synchronized clocks in train stations. If he had it would give a very tangible sense to that most famous of all scientific thought experiments in his 1905 paper. It would make his move towards a criticism of absolute time both figurative and literal.
The book emphasizes for me the extent to which all science is a system.