Sunday, March 25, 2012

Darwin and Einstein stole credit

Ian McEwan compares Darwin to Einstein in the UK Guardian:
A frenzied desire to be first inspired Darwin and Einstein to bursts of creativity. Like writers and artists, scientists strive to have their names attached to a work of brilliance, but any breakthrough depends on the efforts of countless predecessors. ... In 1858 and 1915, Darwin and Einstein, driven in part by the somewhat ignoble or worldly ambition to be first, redirected not only the course of science, but redefined our sense of ourselves.
They are both famous for popularizing ideas that were first written down by others.
Einstein, another great creator, could not have begun his special theory of relativity without the benefit of countless others, including Hendrik Lorentz and Max Planck. He was entirely dependent on mathematicians to give expression to his ideas.
Planck was not a mathematician and did not help Einstein begin his relativity work. He helped Einstein later. Einstein was dependent on mathematicians, but not for giving expression to his ideas. It was more a matter of Einstein popularizing the ideas of mathematicians.
Isaacson quotes the physicist James Hartle: "The central idea of general relativity is that gravity arises from the curvature of space-time." Two complementary processes were to be described – how matter is affected by a gravitational field, and how matter generates a gravitational field in space-time and causes it to curve. These startling, near-ungraspable notions were eventually to find expression in Einstein's adaptation of the non-Euclidean geometry of tensors devised by the mathematicians Riemann and Ricci. By 1912 Einstein had come close to a mathematical strategy for an equation, but then he turned aside, looking for a more physics-based route. It was only partially successful, and he had to be satisfied with publishing with his colleague Marcel Grossmann an outline of a theory, the famous "Entwurf" of 1913, which, as Einstein came to realise, contained important errors.
Grossmann was one of those mathematicians. The errors were Einstein's, not Grossmann's. Einstein spent a couple of years trying to understand what Grossmann did in that 1913 paper.
By his third lecture, Einstein's theory in its present state accurately predicted the shift in Mercury's orbit – he was, he wrote to a friend, "beside myself with joyous excitement". Just days before Einstein was about to give his final lecture, Hilbert submitted his own formulation of general relativity to a journal in an essay with the not-so-humble title of "The Foundation of Physics". Einstein wrote bitterly to a friend: "In my personal experience I have hardly come to know the wretchedness of mankind better."
While this may have seemed like competition, these papers had little in common. They were both based on Grossmann's 1913 Entwurf equations. Einstein was applying the equations to Mercury's orbit while Hilbert found a Lagrangian formulation of the equations. Everyone agrees that these works were independent.
Unlike Wallace, who worked independently of Darwin, Hilbert was trying to give mathematical expression to theories that were Einstein's. Nevertheless, Einstein, like Darwin, was driven to a great creative outpouring for fear of losing priority. The formulation he gave in his final lecture on 28 November was described by the physicist Max Born as "the greatest feat of human thinking about nature, the most amazing combination of philosophical penetration, physical intuition and mathematical skill". Einstein himself said of the theory that it was of "incomparable beauty".
This story does not even make any sense. If Einstein's work was such a great feat, why would he be so concerned about priority? Einstein was a big-shot professor who had very quickly published all of his ideas, both good and bad, so he was in no danger of not being recognized.

The explanation is that Einstein and Hilbert worked jointly on relativity for a couple of months, and Hilbert convinced Einstein that Grossmann had been right in 1913. Einstein was a jealous egomaniac, and he was horrified at the idea that Grossmann might get credit for general relativity. Einstein and Hilbert should have published on joint paper on why Grossmann was right.
The Einstein-Hilbert priority dispute still rumbles on in its small way. But it should be noted that both Wallace and Hilbert were quick and generous to concede priority to Darwin and Einstein.
The priority dispute is mainly over a fairly minor technical issue. They agreed that Grossmann equations (Ricci tensor equals stress-energy tensor, in appropriate units) was correct for the solar system, but one of the ten equations needs an extra term if the solar system is immersed in a giant cosmic fluid. Einstein and Hilbert separately published the equations with that extra term, and there is some dispute over who discovered the term first. The main argument for Hilbert is that Hilbert's paper is dated first, and it gave a good mathematical argument for the necessity of the term. The main argument for Einstein is that he had worked on relativity for ten years, and it was unfair for Hilbert to get credit by doing just a few months of work polishing up the equations.
Darwin and Einstein came first and were overwhelmed by celebrity and profound respect, and became icons in the culture, while Wallace and Hilbert languished in relative obscurity. And this "first", this originality, is precisely defined. Not first along an absolute Newtonian timeline, but first in a recognisable and respectable public forum.
So Darwin and Einstein were not first to come up with the scientific ideas, but they were first to become public celebrities.

Darwin and Einstein had the advantage that their rivals were gentlemen who generously credited others. Darwin and Einstein were publicity seeking narcissists who were willing to fight for priority, while others were content to simply publish their ideas and let them stand on their own.


  1. It seems to me that the real reason why Einstein got the credit for stuff that Lorentz and Poincare did is similar to why VHS beat Beta.

    Einstein marketed his ideas better than Poincare and Lorentz and captured the imagination of his readers in a way that Poincare and Lorentz did not, even though their ideas were virtually the same as Einstein's and they came first. Probably, this has something to do with the fact that Einstein worked in a patent office and learned from this experience valuable lessons about what is important in the real world for getting one's name attached to an idea.

    For starters, he gave his theory a fascinating name "relativity", which Poincare and Lorentz didn't do.

  2. Einstein did not choose the word "relativity", and he only reluctantly adopted it after everyone else was using it. The term was mainly popularized by Poincare.

    Einstein did not capture the imagination of his readers back in 1905. That was chiefly done by Minkowski in 1908. But Minkowski soon died, and could not cash in like Einstein.

  3. "Darwin and Einstein had the advantage that their rivals were gentlemen who generously credited others. Darwin and Einstein were publicity seeking narcissists who were willing to fight for priority, while others were content to simply publish their ideas and let them stand on their own."

    You may well be qualified to make that statement about Einstein since you are obviously well versed in the history and the ideas involved. However, I doubt the same applies to Darwin.

    Darwin arranged for Wallace's and his papers on Evolution to be presented to the Royal Society on the same occasion whilst Wallace was still in Indonesia obtaining specimens and being paid under Darwin's instructions.

    As you probably understand, the Theory of Evolution does not reduce to a mathematical equation and is not testable in a laboratory. Darwin not only needed a theory but he also needed the evidence to show that the way species had evolved was in correspondence with the presumption of his theory. Accordingly, getting from protozoa to primates in easy steps required a considerable amount of histological investigation, peering down his microscope.

    There is no doubt that Darwin was and is deservedly the central figure on Evolution. I suggest you read "Darwin" by Adrian Desmond and James Moore; there is no finer biography of a scientist and his work.

  4. I don't doubt that Darwin made a valuable contribution, but I don't see why he should get more credit for evolution than others, such as the 1844 book Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation.

    1. 'Vestiges'. according to Darwin of its first anonymous edition was well written, but the 'geology was bad & his zoology far worse' (Darwin was also an accomplished geologist). The progress of Darwin's thinking can be traced through his notebooks well before he published the 'Origin'; for instance his famous 'I think' diagram was drawn in his 'Transmutation of Species' notebook in 1837.

      I agree that Darwin was not working or thinking in a vacuum and its probably true to say that Evolution's time had come. He was certainly influenced by Malthus for example. However, before Darwin no one had attempted a detailed histological study of flora and fauna in order to understand the evolutionary progression and to be able to forestall the types of objections still put forward by Creationists today. His first observations of specimens on the Galapagos Is during his Voyages to the South Seas had caused him to realise that species were adaptable not immutable.

      If you want to go after a biologist whose work does not deserve recognition I suggest you go after Melvin Calvin who took the pioneering work of Andrew Benson and passed it off as his own (see BBC 'Biology: a Blooming History' - 'Photosynthesis').