Thomas Levenson, an MIT professor of science writing, writes in Atlantic mag:
In describing the paradox that led him to his early breakthrough, the Special Theory of Relativity, Einstein noted that it took him a decade to get from his first thoughts to the final theory. (He started at 16, so he has some excuse.) The breakthrough turned on his realization that measurements of time and space aren’t absolute. Rather, they shift for different observers depending on how they’re moving relative to each other.Einstein mentioning Hume and Mach is just a sneaky way of avoiding the fact that he got the whole theory from Lorentz and Poincare.
As he struggled to finish the theory, Einstein found that “even scholars of audacious spirit and fine instinct can be obstructed in the interpretation of facts by philosophical prejudices.” Einstein himself had to reach out of physics to develop the habits of mind that allowed him to see past the prejudices that obscured the relativistic universe he ultimately discovered. “The type of critical reasoning which was required for the discovery of this central point” he wrote, “was decisively furthered, in my case especially, by the reading of David Hume’s and Ernst Mach’s philosophical writings.”
Roberts’s question about the benefits minorities might bring into a physics classroom suggests a classroom in which nothing outside physics may usefully impinge.
David Hume! Benjamin Franklin’s friend (they corresponded on the matter of lightning rods, among other matters) and Adam Smith’s confidante! Hume’s name isn’t usually linked to deep physical insights. But as Einstein suggests, the intellectual work of physics doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It can’t be separated from a person’s learned habits of thought, from a particular set of lived incidents, books read, alternate worlds imagined. The diversity of Einstein’s particular background, sensibility, and cultural circumstances all played a role in bringing Special Relativity to fruition.
Levenson uses this to say that the US Supreme Court is wrong, and that Physics needs affirmative action to bring in new people and ideas. Lubos Motl addresses the foolishness of his argument.
Contrary to popular belief, Einstein was not an outsider. He was a German who progressed thru a rigid educational system, getting a doctoral degree in physics from a prestigious university. He did have an outside job while finishing his dissertations, but I doubt that was unusual.
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