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Paradigm Lost

Suman Seth

Einstein's Jury: The Race to Test Relativity. Jeffrey Crelinsten. xxx + 397 pp. Princeton University Press, 2006. $35.

In a letter written on February 6, 1920, astronomer Keivin Burns of California's Lick Observatory expressed his doubts about Einstein's general theory of relativity. "Of course no one at Lick believes in the Einstein effect," he wrote, referring to the gravitational redshift in spectroscopic lines predicted by the theory, "it being contrary to philosophy, judgment, and horse sense. But since so much is being said on the subject it is necessary to be interested. It may take a long while to show the error of the ways of the English astronomers."

The timing, location and subject of Burns's epistle are all central to our understanding of the early reception and testing of one of the pillars of modern physical theory. Most popular accounts of Einstein's theory tend to depict the 1919 eclipse expedition, led by Arthur Stanley Eddington, as the crucial test for general relativity. Eddington's announcement that the paths of starlight were deflected or "bent" by the Sun's gravitational field by almost exactly the amount predicted by the theory was met with incredulity and amazement among scientists and sparked an international press furor. Within two weeks of the first media reports, the British humor magazine Punch recorded in lines of doggerel that an English "patriot" had been forced to write a funeral march, "To record, as he said, that a Jewish-Swiss-Teuton / Had partially scrapped the Principia of Newton."

As Jeffrey Crelinsten's crisply written and impressively researched book shows, however, the "patriot fiddler-composer of Luton" gave up his faith in Newtonian physics long before American astronomers were convinced to do so. The ongoing skepticism of the Americans was to have real import, for in the 1920s it was increasingly to the Lick and Mount Wilson observatories, both in California, that European and British scientists would look for the final word on the validity of a theory that few professed to understand fully.

There is no dearth of literature on Einstein, but two elements make Einstein's Jury stand out: First, it looks at astronomers, rather than physicists or mathematicians, providing a focus that comparatively few others have offered. Second, and even more important, Crelinsten's book crosses the Atlantic to offer a genuinely novel perspective on the question of relativity's reception. (The most notable exception to both of these points is historian Klaus Hentschel's extensive work, of which Crelinsten makes good use.)

American scientists repeatedly bemoaned their inability to deal with the theoretical intricacies of Einstein's new formulation of the nature of space and time. As a result, theory takes a back seat in Crelinsten's story; he stresses instead the ways in which observational materials and practices changed in order to grapple with "the Einstein problem." At the same time, Crelinsten uses debates over Einstein's theory as a lens through which to examine the tensions within the U.S. astronomical community, as better-funded and better-equipped astronomers in the West came to accept and later argue for general relativity in the face of skepticism and even hostility from their eastern colleagues.

The book is divided into four parts, the first two of which deal with the years between Einstein's publication in 1905 of what would later become known as his "special theory" and the initial responses to the 1919 eclipse expedition. This is the material, especially the European side of the story, that will be more familiar to the specialist. But the account is deftly told, and we arrive at the end of the 1910s with a good sense of the major contours of international astronomy and a real sense of surprise that the English would so willingly ignore the negative or neutral evidence from the Lick in favor of Eddington's eclipse data. American astronomers critical of the theory clearly felt the same surprise and accused their British colleagues of launching a publicity campaign on Einstein's behalf, a claim that recent scholarship tends to support (as shown, for example, in articles by Alistair Sponsel in the British Journal for the History of Science and by Matthew Stanley in Isis).

William Wallace CampbellClick to Enlarge Image

Part three covers the years between 1920 and 1925, as researchers at Mount Wilson took up the redshift problem in earnest and Lick observers continued their work on the gravitational bending of light. In 1922 the Lick would confirm the results of Eddington's expedition with data deemed so solid that the Lick's director, William Wallace Campbell, informed Frank Dyson, Britain's Astronomer Royal, that the observatory would not bother with further testing of the problem at the next eclipse in September 1923. On the basis of redshift data collected during that eclipse, even the formerly reticent astronomer Charles E. St. John of Mount Wilson stepped forward in support of the theory.

For more cautious and critical researchers, however, the 1923 results were no more decisive than those of 1919. The director of the Allegheny Observatory in Pittsburgh, Heber Doust Curtis, for example, was forced to concede the existence of a deflection larger than that predicted by Newtonian theory, but he still balked at accepting Einstein's theory. He held out hope that Newtonian mechanics would eventually explain both evidence from the Lick and the perihelion of Mercury. (The perihelion of a planet's orbit—that is, the point at which the planet passes closest to the Sun—shifts slowly over time. It had earlier been shown that Newtonian mechanics alone could not easily explain the movement of the perihelion of Mercury. Einstein's theory, however, could account for it.)

Curtis was not alone in his opposition. Crelinsten delineates the ways in which postwar, anti-European sentiment played into the debate, as some scientists were critical of Einstein personally, as well as his theory. T. J. J. See, astronomer at the Mare Island Navy Yard, would make use of the vicious propaganda promoted in Germany by a group of anti-Semitic scientists who accused Einstein of plagiarism. Charles Lane Poor, professor of celestial mechanics at Columbia University, referred to Einstein as "the bolshevist of science" and called his theory "the most dangerous doctrine of modern times." Curtis remained strongly anti-German and complained to Campbell at one point that "the personnel list of Lick and Mount Wilson are getting to read too much like a page of a Swedish directory."

Crelinsten's story shifts in the fourth section, which deals with the "final acceptance" of Einstein's theory in the second half of the 1920s. He notes that one of the effects of strident antirelativist attacks was to shift the positions of the directors of the leading observatories in the western U.S. from their studied neutrality to an open advocacy. "The nature of the ensuing debates," he writes, "forced Lick and Mount Wilson astronomers to go beyond defending their observations. They ended up supporting the theory."

The book's symmetry of description—strong when discussing Old and New World astronomers—wavers somewhat in this section. No similar equality functions between leading U.S. institutions and the individuals who would remain opposed to relativity. Campbell's actions, for example, are depicted as "natural" and "appropriate" while the motives of See, Poor and Curtis are both personal and "suspect." This treatment seems inadequate for Curtis, in particular, who is portrayed earlier in the book as far too rich and multifaceted a character to be explained so simply.

In spite of this shortcoming, the book remains an impressive one throughout. It belongs to that rare breed of works that will be of genuine interest and enjoyment to the casual reader while at the same time being required reading for the specialist.

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