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Science stories from the Near North

Making waves after 100 years

It’s been thoroughly reported by now , but here is an added twist to the confirmation of Einsteins General theory of Relativity by the gravitational  wavehunters at LIGO.

Albert Einstein received the Nobel prize in physics for 1921 – but he got it in -22. By then it was more or less expected that Einstein was about to get the prize sooner or later. He had become the world’s most eminent scientist, and he already had an agreement with his first wife, Mileva Maric, how to divide the money when it eventually would arrive.

But the prize was awarded for his work on the photoelectric effect.  Not for his relativity theories – the special and the general. One of the important factors that held the Royal Academy of Sciences from rewarding that work was the adamant opposition from the great philosopher of the time, the frenchman Henri Bergson.

Here is the introduction of  the presentation speech by Svante Arrhenius (the very man who demonstrated the Greenhouse effect on the earth’s climate).

Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen.

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.

Einstein wasn’t there. He was on a lecture tour to Japan. If he had been present he might have been a bit pissed off at hearing about Bergson’s criticism once again, in this place, and from this guy, a fellow scientist. But that’s how strong the intellectual influence of Bergson was in the early 1900:s.

Bergson didn’t like Einstein’s description of time. For him, Time was a fundamental aspect of being, something intuitive that shaped our perception of life and the universe. Not something that could be dilated or contracted by the speed with which you travel through space. Bergson considered the theory of relativity as a piece of metaphysics that Einstein had slammed upon physics. Something that empirical science shouldn’t dabble in.

Einstein is quoted as replying to the frenchman that ”there is no such thing as philosophical time”.

The first corroborations of Einsteins predictions came right after the Great War, in 1919, when Arthur Eddington saw that the light from stars was bent by the gravity of the sun. Those reports made headlines all over the world, for instance the wonderful NY Times front page ”Lights All Askew in the Heavens”

But Bergson’s voice still carried such weight that the physicist Arrhenius agreed that the theory  ”pertains essentially to epistemology”.  And the interesting phrase ”the theory in question also has astrophysical implications which are being rigorously examined at the present time” is of course very true – and prophetic. Now it has been so rigorously tested that very little remain to test.

Bergson himself got the prize for literature a couple of years later. But in the test of time Einstein wins hands down, of course.  Very few people read Bergson today, and few even know the basic tenets of his philosophy. A fact that gives an interesting perspective on the ups and downs of intellectual fashions. I sometimes compare the prizes in physics and literature from the same year to see whose heritage lives on and who is more or less forgotten.

Here’s a short list

1901 Phys: Röntgen  Litt: Sully Prudhomme

1903 Becquerel + the Curies Litt: Björnson

1918 Phys: Max Planck       Litt: None but 1919 Carl Spitteler

1932 Phys: Heisenberg      Litt: John Galsworthy

and so on…I have chosen some pretty famous physicists, agreed, but in general it seems that science has the longer shelf life.

3 Kommentarer

  1. It’s really nice that you haven’t mentioned Johannes Stark for physics in 1919…

    • It’s really nice that you haven’t mentioned Johannes Stark for physics in 1919…
      Though I guess he’s still more famous (or should I say notorious) than, what was his name again, Spitteler. QED

      • skartofta

        23 februari, 2016 at 10:32

        Thanks for the comment.
        Stark is another interesting character, of course, but one of the bad apples in the physics barrel. I did a very random pick of names, and there are many stories to tell. Some became refugees, some joined the dark side, others just kept working. But, as you say, the point I wanted to make was the apparent short half-life of the intellectual fads, compared to real scientific advances. But this is a topic worth pursuing, I think. There are many fascinating folks in the history of science…

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