Sunday, November 20, 2005


On Friday I went to a fairly interesting couple of talks. This year is the 100th anniversary of Einstein's "miracle year", wherein he published four hugely important papers. One explained Brownian motion, which is the effect of heated atoms vibrating and randomly hitting particles in a fluid, another won him the Nobel prize for the photoelectric effect, which has to do with the quantum nature of light, and the last two proposed the theory of special relativity, and as a tangent, introduced the formula E=mc^2. There have been any number of conferences and seminars and celebrations around the world about the miracle year, and on Friday was a symposium at NYU's Physics department (which happens to be in the same building as the Psych department).

There were four talks, but I only went to the first two. The audience was interesting. Most academic talks are dominated by grad students. This one was dominated by eminent retired faculty, including at least one Nobel winner! The median age of the audience was probably 70. Einstein died about 50 years ago, so it's unlikely very many of them actually met him, but ya never know.

I'm only going to talk about the first talk, since the other was a bit technical. The speaker was emeritus Prof. Gerald Holton of Harvard, who talked about the reaction against relativity, both in the realm of physics and in the wider society. Einstein was reportedly quite surprised about the amount of fame his accomplishments brought him, even before the development of the atomic bomb showed just how important his work was.

Special relativity was a fairly shocking hypothesis. As Holton said, there wasn't much in physics prior to 1905 that seemed to require a radical re-definition of the nature of time. In particular, unifying electromagnetism with the physics of motion seemed quite absurd, even if Einstein's thought experiments made sense. As a result of his theory's originality, Einstein was heavily criticized by the physics establishment for several decades. The first actual empirical evidence that (general) relativity was valid wasn't until 1919, and in the mean-time, it was easy to attack. In 1906 a (flawed) experiment in fact purported to disprove relativity! In 1910, a keynote address at a major physics conference supported the notion of a universal aether, which relativity had basically shown to be unnecessary, and which never had any empirical evidence for it anyway.

In addition, Einstein was, of course, a pacifist and a Jew, which offended a good portion of the country he was living in, Germany. During the early 1920s, while the movement that would become Nazism grew in influence (recall that the Beerhall Putsch was in 1923), Einstein's theories were seen as Not German. In 1920 there was a meeting of physicists that attacked relativity as contrary to what was apparently called Deutchphysick (misspelled, no doubt). Relativity was seen as some sort of kabbalistic, Jewish science, not in tune with people's understandings of the world, and a threat to society, which needed a science that could be understood by ordinary people. Einstein stayed in Germany until 1933, when he emmigrated to teach at Princeton.

Relativity become more widely supported in the teens and 20s, as people like Max Planck started to support it on aesthetic grounds. Other competing theories were apparently seen as clumsy. It's interesting how physics seems to appreciate elegance so much, from Newton's universal theory of gravitation, which showed that the gravity of the apple and the path of the planets around the sun are due to the same force, all the way up to string theory (which is supposedly quite elegant if you're smart enough to understand it).

Of course, relativity had effects in philosophy as well as in physics and politics. Relativity was seen as support for relativism, the notion that ethics and truth were relative and in fact socially constructed. As with the Heisenberg uncertainty principle and Darwinism, the scientific theories were used to support nihilistic views of the world, views that were of course opposed by the religious establishments. Einstein was a deist, believing in a divine creation and the divinity of existance, but not in miracles. He certainly was not a post-modernist or a nihilist, however.

Holton closed his lecture by refering back to Plato, who talked about the constancy of the immortal soul, and Pythagoras, who talked about man being the measure of all things. It was a fairly interesting talk, and had interesting things to think about. At dinner with Natasa and a friend of ours last night we ended up talking a bit about how artists have been influenced by these sorts of scientific ideas.

At some point, I'd very much like to see John Adams' new opera, Doctor Atomic, about the making of the atomic bomb, which was a direct result of the breakthroughs initiated by Einstein a hundred years ago.


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