Einstein vs. Whittaker, with Born in the middle

My former thesis advisor is the greatest! I recently helped him update an electronic compilation of his collected papers, but refused any payment for my services. He ignored me and sent me a copy of The Born-Einstein Letters, a compilation of correspondence between Albert Einstein and Max Born between 1916 and 1955.

This gives me an opportunity/excuse to discuss one of my favorite exchanges between the pair, concerning Sir Edmund Whittaker’s book A History of the Theories of Aether and Electricity.

Sir Edmund Whittaker (1873-1956) was a very successful and influential mathematician and researcher. In 1910, he published a book entitled A History of the Theories of Aether and Electricity, which describes the speculation and search for the medium of light propagation (the ‘aether‘, a topic we’ve discussed many times) from the time of Rene Descartes through the end of the nineteenth century. (The complete 1910 edition can be downloaded here.)

Whittaker likely expected his book to be the fundamental reference on the physics of the aether. However, in 1905, before the book was even published, Einstein postulated his special theory of relativity which made the aether a moot concept. Whittaker’s book was relegated from fundamental scientific work to a historical footnote, of sorts, which no doubt caused him no small amount of irritation.

The 1910 version of the book included no description of the special theory of relativity. When Whittaker published a revised version of the book in the early 1950s, he included a chapter on, “The Relativity Theory of Poincaré and Lorentz”, and basically ranked Einstein’s contributions to the theory as of little importance.

Max Born was good friends with both Whittaker and Einstein, and tried to convince Whittaker that Einstein’s contributions to the theory were much more fundamental (we’ll come back to this point when I pick up my posts on relativity theory). Whittaker remained unconvinced, so Born wrote the following in a letter to Einstein in October of 1953:

Very often I feel the need to write to you, but I usually suppress it to spare you the trouble of replying. Today, though, I have a definite reason — that Whittaker, the old mathematician, who lives here as Professor Emeritus and is a good friend of mine, has written a new edition of his old book History of the Theory of the Ether, of which the second volume has already been published. Among other things it contains a history of the theory of relativity which is peculiar in that Lorentz and Poincaré are credited with its discovery while your papers are treated as less important. Although the book originated in Edinburgh, I am not really afraid you will think that I could be behind it. As a matter of fact I have done everything I could during the last three years to dissuade Whittaker from carrying out his plan, which he had already cherished for a long time and loved to talk about. I re-read the originals of some of the old papers, particularly some rather off-beat ones by Poincaré, and have given Whittaker translations of German papers (for example, I translated many pages of Pauli’s Encyclopaedia article into English with the help of my lecturer, Dr. Schlapp, in order to make it easier for Whittaker to form an opinion). But all in vain. He insisted that everything of importance had already been said by Poincaré, and that Lorentz quite plainly had the physical interpretation. As it happens, I know quite well how sceptical Lorentz was and how long it took him to become a relativist. I have told Whittaker all this, but without success. I am annoyed about this, for he is considered a great authority in the English speaking countries and many people are going to believe him. It is particularly unpleasant in my opinion that he has woven all sorts of personal information into his account of quantum mechanics and that my part in it is extolled. Many people may now think (even if you do not) that I played rather an ugly role in this business. After all, it is common knowledge that you and I do not see eye to eye over the question of determinism. What is more, I have written a small article which is shortly to appear in which I give a theoretical interpretation of an idea of Freundlich’s about stellar red shift, which could, if correct, cause difficulties for the relativistic interpretation. Therefore my feeling towards you is that of a cheeky urchin who can get away with certain liberties without offending you. But it may well seem less harmless to other people. Well, I had to write this and get it off my chest.

Einstein’s response is short and priceless:

Don’t lose any sleep over your friend’s book. Everybody does what he considers right or, in deterministic terms, what he has to do. If he manages to convince others, that is their own affair. I myself have certainly found satisfaction in my efforts, but I would not consider it sensible to defend the results of my work as being my own ‘property’, as some old miser might defend the few coppers he had laboriously scraped together. I do not hold anything against him, nor of course against you. After all, I do not need to read the thing.

What was Whittaker’s problem? I have previously referred to G.A. Schott as the last of the respectable ‘anti-quantumists’; Whittaker may have very well been the last of the respectable ‘anti-relativists’, though he never admitted this to be the case. I wouldn’t be surprised if he also wasn’t just a little irked, as I mentioned above, that his magnum opus on the aether was made a historical curiosity by Einstein even before it was published.

This entry was posted in History of science, Physics, Relativity. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Einstein vs. Whittaker, with Born in the middle

  1. Wade Walker says:

    Thanks for the great reference to Whittaker’s book! I’ve been interested in the history of “aether” theories for some time, but it’s hard to find detailed information about them in modern sources.

    One nice source I did come across is Helge Kragh’s article “The vortex atom: A Victorian theory of everything,” Centaurus 44 (2002), 32-114. His book “Quantum Generations” also has some good information on older theories in the early chapters.

  2. Wade: Glad you found it useful! I’ve seen an article on the ‘vortex atom’ previously; it’s a fascinating topic in and of itself.

  3. mario says:

    Hey, this is a really interesting article! I happen to have the second (1951) edition of Whittaker’s book, and was a bit annoyed that Einstein’s name is not even once mentioned. That smacks of sore-loserhood.

  4. schlafly says:

    Whittaker was certainly not an anti-relativist. His book has 2 whole chapters on relativity, and mentions Einstein many times.

  5. Thanks for your interesting information and about the book from your master. Whittaker was perhaps a good friend (and contemporary) of Eddington.Eddington considered himself as the second and the only one person who knew (after Einstein) about Relativity then it appears.How was it that Eddington could not influence Whittaker into believing in Einstein? Also I vaguely remember reading somewhere that Whittaker wrote a book “from Euclid to Eddington” and that perhaps indicates that he held Eddington in high esteem. To what extent could it be true that Whittaker did not hold anything against Einstein and only Bonn was suspicious and expressed them to Einstein? Whittaker had written many other great books and just one book’s importance being reduced – could it affect him?

  6. schlafly says:

    Whittaker did not hold anything against Einstein. The book gives ample credit to Einstein. But Whittaker correctly attributes special relativity to Lorentz and Poincare. For details, see How Einstein Ruined Physics.

  7. Ashok Katti says:

    The names of Poincare and Hilbert are toxic to “fans” of Einstein. Mere mention of them is regarded as an anti-Jewish act. The reasons for this are: (1) a persecution complex, which is understandable, and (2) a desire to show that Einstein alone discovered everything in relativity, which is absolutely false. The attempts to denigrate Hilbert particularly are disgusting and nothing but acts of reverse-racism. For me all three, Einstein, Poincare and Hilbert, are equally great, each in his own way. They are my immortal heroes. .

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