Sunday, November 13, 2011

Esterson and Holton on Einstein

Allen Esterson wrote in 2010:
Some big guns among historians of physics have since disputed Whitaker's view, for example, Gerald Holton Holton writes: "If we examine Whitaker's analysis closely, it turns out to be an excellent example of a scholar's prior commitments and prejudgements." He goes on to discuss the issue over the next dozen pages to demonstrate how Whitaker misconceived the historical facts. (*Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought*, 1988, pp. 196-206)
Esterson convinced a PBS Ombudsman that an Einstein show was biased towards claims about his first wife. Some of Holton's book is online. The supposedly misconceived facts are:
1. Whittaker said that Einstein's paper "attracted much attention" but it was actually ignored or criticized in the first few years.
2. Poincare's 1904 lecture/paper only outlined what the principle of relativity might do.
3. Whittaker incorrectly dated Lorentz's 1904 paper as 1903. Holton says, "It is at least a symbolic mistake, symbolic of the way a biographer's preconceptions interact with his material."
4. Einstein denied that he read Lorentz's 1904 paper or Poincare's papers.
5. Einstein did not need Lorentz's 1904 paper, and would have credited it if he did.
6. Lorentz's 1904 paper was titled, "Electromagnetic phenomena in a system moving with any velocity smaller than that of light", but he did not really mean that title.
7. Einstein should get the last word, and he claimed that his work was indepedent.

Holton says that Lorentz was "valiant", Poincare was "gradualist", and Einstein was "creative".

Could anyone be persuaded by such silly arguments? None of it refutes the historical fact that Lorentz and Poincare published relativity theory before Einstein. At best it says that Einstein reinvented part of relativity, if you believe Einstein. One of the things that changed my mind about Einstein was that so many Einstein-worshiping scholars had expended so much effort to prove his originality, and yet their arguments are transparently trivial or ideological or incorrect. It is absurd to say that Einstein would have credited his sources. He spent his whole life lying about his sources. Anyone who knows the first thing about Einstein's personality knows that he was a publicity-seeking egomaniac who never shared credit unless he had to.

Holton is correct that the initial reception to Einstein's 1905 paper was that it was just an elaboration of Lorentz's ideas. No one thought that it was important until years later, when people learned relativity from textbooks that said that Einstein's paper was important. As far as I can tell, the paper had very little direct impact on the growth of interest in relativity. And yet some people say today that the paper was the greatest science paper ever written.

Esterson has recently argued on Wikipedia that Einstein's wife did not contribute anything significant to his papers. (To see it, you have to click to show "Interesting discussion follows, but off-topic in article talk space".) That may be true, but as I said there:
I think that we have a pretty good idea of the influences on Einstein's 1905 relativity paper, but Einstein denied having read Poincare, denied knowing about Michelson-Morley, and denied having read Lorentz except for Lorentz's 1895 paper. And Einstein did not cite any sources in that paper. I am not saying that Maric deserves more credit than Einstein. But there is a myth that Einstein did it all by himself just because he did not cite any sources, and that is false. He surely read some of those papers by Lorentz and Poincare, and he surely got help from his wife.
In arguing for giving Einstein sole credit for relativity, Esterson quotes Lorentz's 1927 praise for Einstein:
I considered my time transformation only as a heuristic working hypothesis. So the theory of relativity is really solely Einstein's work. And there can be no doubt that he would have conceived it even if the work of all his predecessors in the theory of this field had not been done at all. His work is in this respect independent of the previous theories.
Yes, Lorentz was scrupulous about crediting his sources. An article about Lorentz could reasonably assume that Lorentz's influences were exactly what he said that they were. But Einstein gave interviews all his life about how he invented relativity all by himself. Maybe Lorentz, Holton, and Pais believed it, but Darrigol and a lot of others do not give Einstein sole credit. Esterson also recommends Darrigol's article, and he says that Einstein may have read Lorentz's 1904 paper and Poincare's 1898 and 1900 papers (as well as Lorentz 1895 and Poincare 1902).

As I explain in my book, Lorentz's time was heuristic in the sense that he did not have a way of systematically synchronizing clocks so that the time in a moving frame could be related to time in some other frame. Poincare published it in 1900, and it is known as PoincarĂ©–Einstein synchronisation. Lorentz surely read Poincare's 1900 paper, but apparently did not appreciate it, because Lorentz identified the synchronization as one of the main contributions of Einstein's 1905 paper.

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