Monday, October 17, 2016

SciAm on relativity in 1911

Here is the first SciAm article on relativity:
“In 1905, came a fundamental and (as the fu-
ture historian will probably say) an epoch-
making contribution in the shape of an unas-
suming and dry-looking dissertation, ‘Con-
cerning the Electro-dynamics of Moving
Bodies,’ by A. Einstein, a Swiss professor of
physics. It appeared in the Annalen der
Physik, the German counterpart of our Philo-
sophical Magazine. It created no sensation at
the time. It was hardly noticed. Yet, at the pres-
ent time, you cannot open a journal devoted
to physics without finding some fresh contri-
bution to the ever-increasing literature on the
subject: Einstein’s Principle of Relativity.
—E. E. Fournier D’Albe”
Scientific American Supplement, November 11, 1911
I think that it is correct that Einstein's 1905 paper was considered no big deal, and that relativity did not start to take off until 1908. By 1911 relativity was huge, and textbooks were starting to appear.

So why did relativity become so popular in 1908-1911, but not 1905-1908? The obvious explanations are (1) Einstein's paper was not appreciated at first, but it was after 3 years, and (2) Einstein's paper was inconsequential, and Minkowski's 1908 paper made relativity popular.

I say that explanation (2) is better. Minkowski's paper was bold, geometric, and rigorous. It was reprinted and distributed widely. The 1911 works were based on Minkowski's theory, not Einstein's. I do not see any proof that Einstein's paper had much influence on the early development of relativity at all. It seems to have influenced Max Planck, but hardly anyone else. Minkowski learned relativity from David Hilbert, Lorentz, and Poincare, not Einstein.

Hermann Minkowski declared in 1908:
The views of space and time which I wish to lay before you have sprung from the soil of experimental physics, and therein lies their strength. They are radical. Henceforth space by itself, and time by itself, are doomed to fade away into mere shadows, and only a kind of union of the two will preserve an independent reality.
Minkowski died in 1909, but his 1908 paper was the most widely read relativity paper at the time. Nearly all subsequent relativity work was based on Minkowski's formulation, not Einstein's.

It is odd that Einstein's 1905 paper would be credited as being so influential. I cannot find much actual influence at the time. Everyone considered an embellishment of Lorentz's theory, and some called it the Lorentz-Einstein theory. Apparently it persuaded Planck, but not Minkowski or everyone else. It appears that many people, including this SciAm writer, decided years later than the paper must have been influential. But it was not.


  1. The Einstein cult is outrageous but the quantum computer cult is even more idiotic. They can't design a language like Julia, a condensed develop environment like Squeak and just waste all our MIPS and graphics TFLOPS on bad programming. FPGAs have been around forever and no one uses them. I have been saying this forever, as well. Japan finally got the idiotic Westerners to pay attention:

    "Fujitsu says it has implemented basic optimisation circuits using an FPGA to handle combinations which can be expressed as 1024 bits, which when using a ‘simulated annealing’ process ran 10,000 times faster than conventional processors in terms of handling the aforementioned thorny combinatorial optimisation problems.

    The company says it will work on improving the architecture going forward, and by the fiscal year 2018, it expects 'to have prototype computational systems able to handle real-world problems of 100,000 bits to one million bits that it will validate on the path toward practical implementation'."

  2. I think that Minkowski did not cite Poincare but Einstein and Lorentz.

  3. "It is odd that Einstein's 1905 paper would be credited as being so influential. I cannot find much actual influence at the time." - Are you really sure? How many citations he got in 1905-1908 period? I know of one good utilization of Einstein work by von Laue proving Fresnel drift factor in 1907.

    1. Einstein: "Since the mathematicians have invaded the relativity theory, I do not understand it myself any more."

      Minkowski mentions Einstein in a 1907 paper but basically a single line about his minor insight. Lorentz & Poincare are discussed at length.

      The Fundamental Equations for Electromagnetic Processes in Moving Bodies (1907)

    2. "Poincare are discussed at length" - I have just looked at the paper. Lorentz is discussed at length but not Poincare!

    3. Wrong. You don't get the math.

      I'll repeat my post to Motl with quotes from Roger and others:

      The more I read about Einstein, the more I realize his following is a cult. In terms of the geometrization of physics "many people assume that Einstein was a leader in this movement, but he was not. When Minkowski popularized the spacetime geometry in 1908, Einstein rejected it. When Grossmann figured out to geometrize gravity with the Ricci tensor, Einstein wrote papers in 1914 saying that covariance is impossible. When a relativity textbook described the geometrization of gravity, Einstein attacked it as wrongheaded.... In 1905, Poincare had the Lorentz group and the spacetime metric, and at the time a Klein geometry was understood in terms of a transformation group or an invariant metric. He also implicitly used the covariance of Maxwell's equations, thereby integrating the geometry with electromagnetism. Minkowski followed where Poincare left off, explicitly treating world-lines, non-Eudlidean geometry, and covariance. Einstein had none of that. He only had an exposition of Lorentz's theorem, not covariance or spacetime or geometry."

      ...(see post)

    4. Furthermore, I just used a paper that had been translated. If you know anything about the subject you would know that "Das Relativitatsprinzip” was "the first account of Minkowski’s ideas on Special Relativity and 4-dimensional geometry. It is striking that, in this text, Poincare’s name is among the most cited ones: more precisely, the three most cited names are Planck (cited eleven times), Lorentz (cited ten times) and Poincare (cited six times). By contrast, Einstein’s name appears only twice."

      Don't waste my time anonymous coward.