Monday, January 10, 2022

How Einstein got the Nobel Prize

A new paper tells a story that you can also find in Einstein biographies:
The incredibly strange story of Einstein's Nobel prize
Palash B. Pal

It is well-known that Einstein got the 1921 Nobel prize not for his theory of relativity, but for his theory of photoelectricity. It is not that well-known that he did not get the prize in 1921. Why not, and when did he get it?

The strange part is that he did not get the prize for relativity, even though that is what made him famous, and that is what got him the most nominations.
The citation said that Einstein was receiving his prize “for his services to Theoretical Physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect.” There was no mention of relativity. There are good reasons to believe that the subject was deliberately omitted, since in his nomination history the reports on relativity were not favorable. ...

However, it has to be said that relativity was not completely omitted in the entire event. The presentation speech for the 1921 Nobel Physics prize was made by Svante Arrhenius. He started his speech like this:

There is probably no physicist living today whose name has become so widely known as that of Albert Einstein. Most discussion centres on his theory of relativity. This pertains essentially to epistemology and has therefore been the subject of lively debate in philosophical circles. It will be no secret that the famous philosopher Bergson in Paris has challenged this theory, while other philosophers have acclaimed it wholeheartedly. The theory in question also has astrophysical implications which are being rigorously examined at the present time.
So, Arrhenius admired relativity and recognized its importance. But he thought that it was essentially “epistemology”. The word, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, means “the study or a theory of the nature and grounds of knowledge especially with reference to its limits and validity”.
Conventional wisdom is that Arrhenius and the Swedes did not appreciate the importance of special relativity. How could anyone say that it was just epsistemology?

I think that the Swedes knew exactly what they were doing. They already gave a Nobel prize to Lorents in 1902 for electromagnetism, and figured out the relativity of electromagnetism about as well as Einstein did. Lorentz had all the necessary equations for the Lorentz transformations.

So what was Einstein's original contribution? It was not to electromagnetism. It was not the formulas, as they had already been published. In short, it was neither the math or the physics.

It was not for popularizing special relativity. As the article explains, Einstein's now-famous 1905 special relativity was not particular influential at the time. The theory became accepted mostly from the works of Lorentz, Poincare, and Minkowski.

Nor was Einstein's approach of any long term significance. The theory that became fundamental physics was the non-Euclidean geometry of spacetime, and Einstein had nothing to do with the development of that.

Nevertheless, people do credit Einstein with a certain view towards special relativity, and it is essentially epistemology. It is not the sort of thing that Nobel prizes are given for.

I have read many essays crediting Einstein for relativity. Most concentrate on special relativity, and his 1905 paper. Many are simply ignorant of other work.

But many are aware of other work, and are careful not to credit Einstein with any new mathematics or physics. Instead they credit Einstein with some subtle philosophical view. And it is a view that is not necessarily shared by anyone else, and maybe not by Einstein himself.

For example, some credit Einstein for his non-positivism. Others explicitly relied on Michelson-Morley and other experiments, and conceded that the theory could be disproved by future experiments. Einstein took what others had proved and called it postulates.

Another new paper by Galina Weinstein on Einstein and Mercury's orbit has a whole section speculating on why he did not give any credit to Besso, his collaborator on the project. Only at the end does she allude to the fact that Einstein spent his entire life cheating others out of credit, so there was nothing unusual about cheating his friend Besso.

The paper has some discussion about whether a miscalculation about Mercury's orbit should have falsified general relativity. I did not get this, as the Mercury orbit anomaly did not falsify Newtonian gravity. I believe I read somewhere that Poincare first proposed that relativity could partially explain the anomaly, but I no longer have the reference.

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