Review: The Cambridge Companion to Einstein

I recommend this recent publication, The Cambridge Companion to Einstein, edited by Michel Janssen and Christoph Lehner.

It is a real good book: The scholarly and academic papers contained in this volume are authored by eminent scholars within the field of Einstein studies.

The first paper introduces the term “Copernican process”, a term invented by scholars to study scientists’ and Einstein’s achievements. The Copernican process describes a complex revolutionary narrative and the book’s side of the divide.

First, Einstein did not consider the relativity paper a revolutionary paper, but rather a natural development of classical electrodynamics and optics; he did regard the light quantum paper a revolutionary paper.

Carl Seelig wrote, “As opposed to several interpreters, Einstein would not agree that the relativity theory was a revolutionary event. He used to say: ‘In the [special] relativity theory it is no question of a revolutionary act but of a natural development of lines which have been followed for centuries'”.

Why did Einstein not consider special relativity a revolutionary event? The answer was related to Euclidean geometry and to measuring rods and clocks. In his special theory of relativity Einstein gave a definition of a physical frame of reference. He defined it in terms of a network of measuring rods and a set of suitable-synchronized clocks, all at rest in an inertial system.

The light quantum paper was the only one of his 1905 papers Einstein considered truly revolutionary. Indeed Einstein wrote Conrad Habicht in May 1905 about this paper, “It deals with the radiation and energy characteristics of light and is very revolutionary”.

A few years ago Jürgen Renn introduced a new term “Copernicus process”: […] “reorganization of a system of knowledge in which previously marginal elements take on a key role and serve as a starting point for a reinterpretation of the body of knowledge; typically much of the technical apparatus is kept, inference structures are reversed, and the previous conceptual foundation is discarded. Einstein’s achievements during his miracle year of 1905 can be described in terms of such Copernican process” (p. 38).

For instance, the transformation of the preclassical mechanics of Galileo and contemporaries (still based on Aristotelian foundations) to the classical mechanics of the Newtonian era can be understood in terms of a Copernican process. Like Moses, Galileo did not reach the promised land, or better perhaps, like Columbus, did not recognize it as such. Galileo arrived at the derivation of results such as the law of free fall and projectile motion by exploring the limits of the systems of knowledge of preclassical mechanics (p. 41).

Einstein preserved the technical framework of the results in the works of Lorentz and Planck, but profoundly changed their conceptual meaning, thus creating the new kinematics of the theory of special relativity and introducing the revolutionary idea of light quanta. Copernicus as well had largely kept the Ptolemaic machinery of traditional astronomy when changing its basic conceptual structure.

Although Einstein did not consider his relativity paper a revolutionary paper, he explained the new feature of his theory just before his death: “the realization of the fact that the bearing of the Lorentz transformation transcended its connection with Maxwell‘s equations and was concerned with the nature of space and time in general. A further new result was that the ‘Lorentz invariance’ is a general condition for any theory. This was for me of particular importance because I had already previously recognized that Maxwell‘s theory did not represent the microstructure of radiation and could therefore have no general validity”.

Planck assumed that oscillators interacting with the electromagnetic field could only emit and/or absorb energy in discrete units, which he called quanta of energy. The energy of these quanta was proportional to the frequency of the oscillator.

Planck believed, in accord with Maxwell’s theory that, the energy of the electromagnetic field itself could change continuously. Einstein first recognized that Maxwell’s theory did not represent the microstructure of radiation and could have no general validity. He realized that a number of phenomena involving interactions between matter and radiation could be simply explained with the help of light quanta.

Using Renn and Rynasiewicz phraseology, Planck “did not reach the promised land”, the light quanta. Moreover, he even disliked this idea. Einstein later wrote about Planck, “He has, however, one fault: that he is clumsy in finding his way about in foreign trains of thought. It is therefore understandable when he makes quite faulty objections to my latest work on radiation”.

In an essay on Johannes Kepler Einstein explained Copernicus’ discovery (revolutionary process): Copernicus understood that if the planets moved uniformly in a circle round the stationary sun (one frame of reference), then the planets would also move round all other frames of reference (the earth and all other planets): “Copernicus had opened the eyes of the most intelligent to the fact that the best way to get a clear group of the apparent movements of the planets in the heavens was to regard them as movements round the sun conceived as stationary. If the planets moved uniformly in a circle round the sun, it would have been comparatively easy to discover how these movements must look from the earth”.

Therefore Einstein’s revolutionary process was the following: Einstein was at work on his light quanta paper, but he was busily working on the electrodynamics of moving bodies too. Einstein understood that if the equation E = hf holds in one inertial frame of reference, it would hold in all others. Einstein realized that the ‘Lorentz invariance’ is a general condition for any theory, and then he understood that the Lorentz transformation transcended its connection with Maxwell’s equations and was concerned with the nature of space and time in general.






Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s