LETTERS TO THE EDITORS
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
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
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.
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.