Thursday, June 23, 2011
Einstein and his precursors
From time to time, Nature used to receive (and doubtless still does) crank letters claiming that Einstein was not the first to derive E=mc2, but that this equation was first written down, after a fashion, by one Friedrich Hasenörhl, an Austrian physicist with a perfectly respectable, if unremarkable, pedigree and career who was killed in the First World War. This was a favourite ploy of those cranks whose mission in life was to discredit Einstein’s theory of relativity – so much so that I had two such folks discuss it in my novel The Sun and Moon Corrupted. But not until now, while reading Alan Beyerchen’s Scientists Under Hitler (Yale University Press, 1977), did I realise where this notion originated. The idea was put about by Philipp Lenard, the Nobel prizewinner and virulently anti-Semitic German physicist and member of the Nazi party. Lenard put forward the argument in his 1929 book Grosse Naturforscher (Great Natural Researchers), in which he sought to establish that all the great scientific discoveries had been made by people of Aryan-Germanic stock (including Galileo and Newton). Lenard was deeply jealous of Einstein’s international fame, and as a militaristic, Anglophobic nationalist Lenard found Einstein’s pacifism and internationalism abhorrent. It’s a little comical that this nasty little man felt the need to find an alternative to Einstein at all, given that he was violently (literally) opposed to relativity and a staunch believer in the aether. In virtually all respects Lenard fits the profile of the scientific crank (bitter, jealous, socially inadequate, feeling excluded), and he offers a stark (that’s a pun) reminder that a Nobel prize is no guarantee even of scientific wisdom, let alone any other sort. So there we are: all those crank citations of the hapless Hasenöhrl – this is a popular device of the devotees of Viktor Schauberger, the Austrian forest warden whose bizarre ideas about water and vortices led him to be conscripted by the Nazis to make a ‘secret weapon’ – have their basis in Nazi ‘Aryan physics’.