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’.


JimmyGiro said...

"bitter, jealous, socially inadequate, feeling excluded..."

You forgot 'misogynous'. By the way, what do you think of those feminist 'cranks' that believe Einstein's first wife, Mileva Maric, came up with the theories?

Philip Ball said...

Oh Jim, you make it sound as though I was making a list of your virtues and unjustly left one out. Anyway, misogyny is optional - the main point is to have a group on whom you can pile your resentments. For Lenard, it was initially the English (because J. J. Thomson didn't cite him fairly, he felt), but then this was transferred to the Jews.
On Maric: yes, that's another aspect of anti-Einstein crankiness, for sure.

Allen Esterson said...

Philip: Although anti-Einstein cranks have jumped on the bandwagon, I don't believe the main proponents of the Maric story have been motivated by what one might call traditional anti-Einstein sentiments. Having in recent years critically examined the writings of all the main proponents, I'd say the motivation is the conviction that they are righting an historical injustice perpetrated on a female (supposed) scientist by a male scientific establishment that is still hellbent on concealing the true facts about Maric's role. Their concern is not to put Einstein down, but to elevate Maric to the position of collaborator, and probable co-author, of (at least) his 1905 papers. Unfortunately their ideological zeal is matched by an ignorance of the physics involved, relevant aspects of Einstein's early accomplishments, and a corresponding misapprehension of Maric's academic limitations. They also have a naive propensity to believe information supposedly supporting their contentions on the basis of nothing more than that they read it in a book, predominantly in Desanka Trbuhovic-Gjuric's biography of Maric in which the numerous sections promoting Maric's role, and purporting to demonstrate Einstein's (conventional) mathematical limitations, are deeply flawed.

Just how far the mythological role of Maric has penetrated into the mainstream is indicated by the fact that the 2008-2009 Europa Diary, distributed to 23,000 schools in the European Union, cites Mileva Marić as "Einstein’s first wife, confidant and colleague – and co-developer of his Theory of Relativity".

My critical analyses of the writings of the main proponents of the Maric stories are here:

JimmyGiro said...

"On Maric: yes, that's another aspect of anti-Einstein crankiness, for sure."

So are you intimating that feminists are: "bitter, jealous, socially inadequate, feeling excluded...", and 'nasty little people'?

Philip Ball said...

By no means all cranks are nasty little people. I suspect most are not. But Lenard was.
Thanks for this. Yes, I was a little cavalier about Maric. I do think that those claims are cranky in the sense of representing a case of ideology trumping rationality, as you point out. (And the historical injustice was of course in the general sense very real.) But no, the motivation here isn't primarily "anti-Einstein" (though in fact it does seem that he was very far from being a saint in his marital relationships).