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Regarding Einstein

To the Editors:

Tony Rothman's delightful essay "Lost in Einstein's Shadow," (Marginalia, March-April) depicts some able scientists who made genuine progress along two of the three lines that Albert Einstein subsequently made his own in 1905. It becomes clear that the reason for their eclipse was not that their achievements were small, but rather that Einstein's definitive results were so all-encompassing. This may explain why there is no record of indignation among the eclipsed about their lack of credit. Indeed, at least Hendrik Lorentz formed a long and friendly relationship with Einstein. Occasionally seen indignation by third parties therefore rings false—just envious iconoclasm.

For physicists such as myself, with limited historical knowledge, there was one person (unmentioned in the essay) who was not eclipsed: Marian Smoluchowski, who independently found the relation between Brownian motion and the molecular structure of matter.

Perhaps the most remarkable omission from the essay is the topic of anyone even partially anticipating Einstein in his third line of research, the notion of localized energy packets that he called light quanta. Max Planck had introduced energy quanta almost as a bookkeeping device to account for the form of blackbody radiation, but Einstein made these quanta concrete by associating them with definite locations.

In this case it appears that no one was overshadowed, because no one except Einstein even tried to advance beyond Planck. It was Einstein's most controversial proposal in 1905 and arguably the one that most shapes our world today. He thought of it as revolutionary, and the lack of precedents tends to vindicate his view.

In short, if some people deserve more credit than the community has given them, still Einstein does not deserve less.

Alfred Scharff Goldhaber
State University of New York at Stony Brook

To the Editors:

Dr. Rothman's thesis, that often one person is given too much credit for a scientific discovery while many others were close to the same discovery, is an almost universal truth. But the example he picked, Einstein, is a major exception.

In the case of special relativity, the work of James Clerk Maxwell, Isaac Newton and others was a prerequisite, but Einstein's work was truly a breakthrough.

It is true that Lorentz and Henri Poincaré had derived equations identical to those of special relativity. It is also true that these two were geniuses. It is natural that they would derive correctly working equations after applying their significant talents to the subject for so many years and studying the prior theoretical and experimental work. It appears from their work that they had only a last conceptual step to bridge. But that last step was huge. So huge, in fact, that neither man understood it, even after they saw Einstein's work. They both demonstrated their lack of understanding in works they published years after 1905.

Einstein's theory seems obvious to those who were taught only it to begin with, so when we see brilliant theorists deriving the same equations and flirting with 'local times," we tend to think they were close to seeing the truth and assume the theory was virtually at hand. But with their lifetimes steeped in one paradigm, they simply could never have developed the correct concept. It took the truly revolutionary approach that Einstein achieved. For that and all his other accomplishments, he truly deserved the accolades he received during the year of physics.

Paul Dickson
Aiken, SC

Dr. Rothman responds:

It is nice to see that "Lost in Einstein's Shadow" generated some interest. I must, however, first distance myself from Zen Antoniak's remarks in the May-June Letters section. Einstein was certainly the greatest scientist of the 20th century, if not of all time. His sins of omission in citing the work of colleagues are probably no greater than of many other scientists. I find it difficult to believe that an unknown 26-year-old patent clerk could sit in his office determining the future: "If I don't reference Poincaré, history will assign me all the credit." Einstein's sins of omission had larger consequences than most only because in retrospect he turned out to be Einstein.

Dr. Goldhaber is certainly correct that I should have mentioned Smoluchowski, who formulated the theory of Brownian motion independently of Einstein, but who is nearly forgotten. His paper, though, only appeared in the 1906 Annalen der Physik, and, judging from his introductory remarks, it was Einstein's paper that prodded Smoluchowski into publishing his own. But Smoluchowski is indeed a good example of a case where if Einstein hadn't done something, someone else would have, and in fact already had.

Regarding Planck, I have always felt him well-honored for his creation of quantum mechanics. It is true that for the five years after Planck introduced his quantum hypothesis, no one besides Einstein took it seriously enough to see that it should be extended to include the concept of "light quanta" or, in other words, photons. Here, I do not think there has been any question of priority or influence, which is why I did not discuss it in the essay.

I am slightly less sympathetic with Dr. Dickson's view. If he reads the essay carefully, he will see that I never claimed Lorentz or Poincaré invented relativity. Nevertheless, I think the evidence is clear that their work influenced Einstein. Poincaré must be given credit for being the first to enunciate the principle of relativity, which he does in black and white, and for foreseeing that the speed of light would prove to be an impassable barrier. Furthermore, if one agrees that Poincaré's equations give results identical to Einstein's (and Poincaré does write down the correct "relativistic Lagrangian," the quantity from which the equations of relativity follow), then I think one must concede the issue is one of interpretation. Einstein provided a profoundly simple interpretation that we today cannot imagine doing physics without. However, at a recent colloquium, I had the opportunity to ask Peter Galison, whose books Dr. Dickson uses as a source, what he thought of Poincaré's failure to "nail it." He replied that if Einstein's formulation had not paved the road for general relativity, we'd probably regard Einstein's theory and Poincare's as two ways of looking at the same thing.

Yes, we revere Einstein because his achievements were so all-encompassing, but neither should one think that he wrapped up everything in a blinding flash. There are mistakes in the 1905 relativity paper, including a serious conceptual error regarding the bending of starlight ("aberration"), one of the phenomena Einstein created his theory to explain. He also initially rejected Hermann Minkowski's wedding of space and time (anticipated again by Poincaré) as "superfluous erudition." All of which goes to show that science is, indeed, a collective endeavor and that science, like art, consists of far more than the few icons we are exposed to in concert halls or museums.

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