Friday, June 30, 2017

Max Born on the history of relativity

A commenter mentioned this quote, and so does the Wikipedia spacetime talk page:
[German Physicist Max] Born wrote: "[...] I went to Cologne, met Minkowski and heard his celebrated lecture 'Space and Time' delivered on 2 September 1908. [...] He told me later that it came to him as a great shock when Einstein published his paper in which the equivalence of the different local times of observers moving relative to each other was pronounced; for he had reached the same conclusions independently but did not publish them because he wished first to work out the mathematical structure in all its splendor. He never made a priority claim and always gave Einstein his full share in the great discovery."
Born also spent 3 years trying to convince Whittaker to credit his friend Einstein for special relativity, but Whittaker wrote that Lorentz and Poincare had it all before Einstein. Aa Born wrote to Einstein:
Whittaker, the old mathematician, who lives here as Professor Emeritus and is a good friend of mine, has written a new edition of his old book History of the Theory of the Ether, of which the second volume has already been published. Among other things it contains a history of the theory of relativity which is peculiar in that Lorentz and Poincaré are credited with its discovery while your papers are treated as less important. ... As a matter of fact I have done everything I could during the last three years to dissuade Whittaker from carrying out his plan, which he had already cherished for a long time and loved to talk about. ...

He insisted that everything of importance had already been said by Poincaré, and that Lorentz quite plainly had the physical interpretation.

I don't see that these self-serving quotes mean much. The fact is that Minkowski gave Einstein very little credit, and Minkowski cheated others out of credit also. Minkowski died soon afterwards, so we do not know what he would have thought of the credit dispute.

Born wrote some papers on the relativity of rigid bodies, as there were such a thing. He seems to have understood the Lorentz-Einstein version of the theory, but it is not clear that he accepted the Poincare-Minkowski version.

As discussed here, Born's opinions on the matter are confusing. While he refuses to give Lorentz full credit for relativity, he implies that he never read Poincare's papers until much later, and when he did, he admitted that Poincare seemed to have the whole theory before Einstein. It appears to me that Born wanted to credit Einstein, but could not find a good reason for doing so.

Born's opinion might be important if he had first-hand knowledge of unpublished opinions. He was good friends with Einstein, Lorentz, and Whittaker. But we don't need Born to tell us what was published in the original papers.


  1. Thanks! Could you please maybe add a summary paragraph of your overall view on the matter? Thanks! I've read your book, but it would be cool to see a refresher. And some folks may not have read your book. :)

  2. Speaking of the history of science, Massimo writes, "But entropy increase is simply an empirical observation. It’s not found anywhere in the equations. And that is the problem. Nobody denies that entropy increases, that time exists (well, actually some do), or that causes precede effects. The problem is that none of this is found in the equations of either quantum mechanics or general relativity. And those are the only fundamental theories about reality we have."

    When Faraday proposed Faraday's Law, it was "simply an empirical observation." "It wasn't found anywhere in the equations."

    Massimo would have dismissed and derided Faraday's discovery of the field, which Einstein lauded, as "a problem." He would have delcared Farady's empirical observations to not be a part of physics, and he would have instead embraced string theory and the multiverse, as he does today.

    When Copernicus proposed the heliocentric universe, it was "simply an empirical observation." "It wasn't found anywhere in the equations." Massimo would have spat upon Copernicus and as he penned and published his irrelevant philosophy pamphlets.

    When Galileo proposed that "all masses fall at the same rate," it was "simply an empirical observation." "It wasn't found anywhere in the equations."

    Massimo would have joined the Priesthood in persecuting Galileo.

    Were it up to Massimo, Faraday, Galileo, and Copernicus would have never been allowed to advance science via their "empirical observations," which Massimo would have dismissed as "problems."