Monday, December 26, 2011

Einstein crowdsourced relativity

Ron Rosenbaum attacks new catchphrases in Slate:
Crowdsourcing: Hasn’t it occurred to anyone—especially the new media genius types who abuse the concept — that the archetypal crowd is a lynch mob? A Nuremberg rally? And, really, no matter how many studies you cite, you’re not going to convince me you get smarter by asking a lot of ignorant people questions. Did Einstein “crowdsource” the Special Theory of Relativity? Or was that just the General Theory?
Einstein was crowdsourcing, a lot more than people realize.

When Einstein published his first relativity paper in 1905, he was supporting the leading electron theory of the day. Lorentz used it to explain the 1887 Michelson-Morley experiment, and to predict relativistic mass in 1899. That mass prediction was confirmed in 1901-1903, and Lorentz got the Nobel prize in 1902. Poincare perfected Lorentz's theory. Abraham had in alternate theory in 1902-1904, but Lorentz and Poincare were the leading theoretical physicists in Europe, and Einstein was just endorsing their view. See History of special relativity for details.

While some Einstein historians argue that Einstein worked in isolation in 1905 and independently reinvented some of what Lorentz and Poincare had done, they all agree that his development of general relativity was based on him picking the brains of the leading experts in differential geometry and tensor analysis. He got the Ricci tensor from Levi-Civita, the covariant field equations from Grossmann, the Lagrangian from Hilbert, the solar system model from Schwarzschild, the cosmological models from de Sitter and others. Einstein biographers even describe him as being tutored on these subjects that formed the core of what he soon called general relativity.

I cannot expect a Slate columnist to know this. I am just pointing out the popular image of Einstein being an iconoclast loner who invented revolutionary ideas, and how that image is completely wrong. For more details, see How Einstein Ruined Physics.

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