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Einstein’s Generation by Richard Staley, Pt. 1 December 23, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club.
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Richard Staley’s 2008 book Einstein’s Generation: The Origins of the Relativity Revolution is an exemplary work of progressive historiographical craftsmanship, and is very high on my personal list of best history of science books written this past decade.  The book is an unabashed work of scholarship, using past historiography constructively to pose and answer a startling variety of questions that both deepen current professional understanding of certain events, and expand that understanding into largely unexplored territories.  It is demanding, and will most reward those with at least some understanding of physics and of prior scholarship on both Einstein and the history of late 19th-century physics.

Einsteins’ Generation works as scholarship in subtle, but, I think, significant ways that will not necessarily be apparent at first reading, so I want to use this post to try and unpack this book’s argumentative strategies and analyze their power.  The first thing I want to note is that the book doesn’t follow a “sandwich” strategy: asserting a central argument in the introduction and  conclusion, and then offering a series of cases, or a long narrative, that bolsters that argument.

There are hints of a centralized anti-straw-man argument, which deflates the view of a single, radical break between a “classical” physics based dogmatically on Newton’s foundation, and a “modern” physics based on relativity and the quantum, but I don’t think this is Staley’s main intent.  More to the point, I think what Staley is trying to do is use a certain style of narrative and historical analysis to create a new view of cutting-edge physics around the turn of the century, which builds on prior scholarship while departing from it in important ways.

What are these ways?  In his back-cover blurb, Harry Collins claims that the accomplishment of the book is to move away from a “history of great men and women”, but this surely misses the mark.  Einstein’s Generation is hardly a “working-class” vision of turn-of-the-century physics.  Even most of the assuredly elite figures on the book’s cover—a famous photograph taken at the 1911 Solvay conference—do not warrant more than a mention in the book, if that.  The closest thing we have to that broad of a view is Paul Forman, John Heilbron, and Spencer Weart’s  special 1975 issue of Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences, “Physics circa 1900: Personnel, Funding, and Productivity of the Academic Establishments” (which was an important demorgraphic and institutional, not intellectual, study).

Staley is not so much trying to get away from greatness as he is trying to redefine it by keeping Einstein and relativity from being the singular paragon of physics progressiveness, which he accomplishes by making sure the narrative is never built entirely around relativity, whatever the book’s subtitle might have you believe.

This is an important historiographical move.  A generation ago, the historian’s task would almost inevitably have been to investigate the origins of and influences on Einstein’s work.  In 1992 Andrew Warwick helped revolutionize “reception studies” by framing the reaction to relativity at Cambridge in terms of its relevance for their work, rather than in terms of their success or failure in properly understanding Einstein’s vision of relativity (“Cambridge Mathematics and Cavendish Physics: Cunningham, Campbell, and Einstein’s Relativity 1905-1911, Part I: The Uses of Theory” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 23: 625-656.)  In Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré’s Maps (2003), Peter Galison queried the techno-cultural context of relativity, depicting general technological and intellectual environments in which Einstein and Henri Poincaré each lived, emphasizing, among other things, the differences between querying what it meant to coordinate networks of clocks versus arriving at agreed-upon conventional standards of measurement.

In all these cases, the subject matter is always relativity itself: its origins, its reception, its contexts.  Staley, on the other hand, uses the well-worn question of relativity as a pivot point or base camp from which to survey not only relativity, but the diverse concerns of the physics surrounding relativity.  Doing this, one makes a broad gain simply by becoming more aware of this “other” physics, but one also makes the specific gain of using the broader understanding to revise professional understanding of the relativity narrative.  Staley accomplishes this through a narrative and methodological fidgetiness, which involves revisiting familiar historical milieus with new concerns in mind, but also making unconventional choices in selecting the next step in the narrative.

This methodology reminds me of another book that I’m fond of, Bruce Wheaton’s The Tiger and the Shark (1983), which departs from conventional narratives of the origins of quantum mechanics by departing from the conventional story of quantum mechanics in the 1910s revolving around trying to puzzle out the structure and behavior of the atom, and investigating instead neglected research on cathode ray tubes and x-rays in the same period.  This, it turns out, was an alternative path to wave-particle duality.  Reading that book, one gains a broad understanding of that neglected research, but one also establishes a more coherent historical explanation for elements previously included in the quantum mechanics narrative rather arbitrarily.  As Thomas Kuhn put it in his introduction to the book, “Dr. Wheaton’s is the first account of quantum theory known to me in which Louis de Broglie appears less as a surprising intruder than as a person with just the background required to play the role for which he is known.”

In Staley’s book, the strategy works similarly.  The book begins by revisiting Albert Michelson’s precision experiments, first to measure the speed of light, then to detect the movement of the earth through the luminiferous ether.  Michelson’s failure to detect the ether was traditionally cited as a problem for which relativity was the elegant answer.  The historiography, led by Gerald Holton, has now long since emphasized that Einstein was personally motivated by theoretical-conceptual incongruities rather than by Michelson’s experimental result.

Staley, though, is interested in Michelson’s work in its own right, and, following Michelson’s most precise null measurements with Edward Morley in 1887, Staley sticks with the Michelson story into the 20th century to discuss how the development of precision optical interferometry, which had numerous (albeit more mundane) practical and experimental applications, became Michelson’s contemporary claim to fame.  Highlighting the importance of interferometry, Staley also charitably reinterprets Michelson’s famous claim that further advances in physics would be in the decmial places to mean that new physical problems (such as the Zeeman effect) could only be found through precision measurement (p. 129).

Staley’s emphasis on the independent history of Michelson’s instrumentation is a self-conscious extension of 1980s-era historiography, which emphasized the importance of material culture.  The decision to stick with interferometry is not unlike Peter Galison’s strategy in Image and Logic (1997).  In that book, Galison stressed the need to follow more natural continuities of practice, rather than to follow a disjointed progress-of-knowledge narrative where experiment begets theory, or, alternatively, theory is confirmed by experiment.  His approach depended on keeping a steadily fixed viewpoint that refused to be budged by orthodox theory-driven narratives, perhaps to the neglect of the history of high-energy-physics practices that resolve instrumental, experimental, and theory-building practices (but, for a case study on this, see chapter 4 of his How Experiments End).

Staley, however, comes back to the familiary territory of Lorentz, FitzGerald, Poincaré, and other assorted proto-Einsteins successfully identified by prior historiography.  This captures the theory-experiment back-and-forth that is surely still necessary for the telling of any fully coherent history of science.  Yet the time spent with instrumentation provides Staley with a fuller set of analytical resources with which to address the theory side of history.

Analyzing Lorentz, Poincaré, and others, an Einstein-centric account here would emphasize the futility of Lorentz-FitzGerald length-contraction hypothesis to explain the Michelson-Morley results, because of the instabilities it would introduce in the electron.  Staley digs deeper, emphasizing the importance of the physics of the electron (and its association with precision measurement), the perceived failures of Einstein’s relativity to solve the problem of the electron, and Einstein’s own admission of this point.  Again, accepting the broad argument of the importance of electron physics, one can also make a whole series of specific gains within the existing historiography, such as explaining Paul Ehrenfest’s initial rejection of Einsteinian relativity, previously subsumed historiographically by emphasis on Ehrenfest as the early champion of Einstein he would soon become.

Staley’s book is so full of halting forays into unexplored territories and minor revisions to existing pictures that, combined with the lack of a strong overall argument, it could be easy to miss his book’s subtler qualities.  These result in a broader and firmer understanding of a community of elite physicists’ immediate motivations, the highlighting of the existence of under-analyzed research programs, and, by extension, the assembly of a better explained, more coherent history of physics, which can be the only real test of historiographical progress.

Absent a full survey—an intellectual version of Forman-Heilbron-Weart—which might not even be possible in a non-reference-book format, I feel Staley’s approach may pack as much argument, big and small, into 422 pages as is realistically possible.  Given the engagement of the relativity history community within itself, I have no doubt Staley’s book will be recognized for its specific accomplishments, but I hope attention will also be paid to his craft, and the attention and argumentative maturity he expects of his audience.

Go to Pt. 2


1. Giant’s Shoulders « The Renaissance Mathematicus - January 15, 2010

[…] century Will Thomas at Ether Wave Propaganda presents a fascinating two-part review essay on Richard Staley’s book Einstein’s Generation. As always with Will offering the reader much food for […]

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