Whittaker breaks the irony meter (1910/1953)

I’m currently working my way through E.T. Whittaker‘s monumental A History of the Theories of Aether and Electricity (1910), among other things.  Whittaker’s book is a very comprehensive study of electricity and aether that stretches back from the seventeenth century up to the beginning of the twentieth, and it really is excellent — I’ve already learned a lot, and am only 20 pages into it!  (I loved a fascinating tidbit about the first experimental measurement of magnetic field lines, demonstrating the poles of the magnet — I’ll come back to this in a future post.)

However, as I’ve blogged about previously, there is one glaring weakness in Whittaker’s treatment.  In his second volume of the ‘History, released in 1953,  he almost completely discounted Einstein’s contribution to the theory of special relativity!  While discussing the “relativity theory of Poincaré and Lorentz,” his primary statement regarding Einstein’s work is:

In the autumn of the same year, in the same volume of the Annalen der Physik as his paper on the Brownian motion, Einstein published a paper which set forth the relativity theory of Poincaré and Lorentz with some amplifications, and which attracted much attention.

Whittaker is much more generous towards Einstein’s general theory of relativity, and gives him the credit, but his dismissal of Einstein’s contribution to special relativity is puzzling.  I’ve speculated that Whittaker was perhaps a bit miffed that his life’s work on the aether was made obsolete in 1905 by Einstein before it was even published; it may also be that Whittaker genuinely didn’t completely grasp the philosophical implications of Einstein’s contribution.

So what is the irony in this?

In the very first chapter of the ‘History, Whittaker discusses the theories of color proposed by Robert Hooke (1635-1703) and later by Isaac Newton (1643-1707).  Referring to Newton’s theory of color, Whittaker notes:

The publication of the new theory gave rise to an acute controversy.  As might have been expected, Hooke was foremost among the opponents, and led the attack with some degree of asperity.  When it is remembered that at this time Newton was at the outset of his career, while Hooke was an older man, with an established reputation, such harshness appears particularly ungenerous; and it is likely that the unpleasant consequences which followed the announcement of his first great discovery had much to do with the reluctance which Newton ever afterwards showed to publish his results to the world.

Emphasis mine! So, in Whittaker’s eyes, Hooke (an established researcher) was being unfair to Newton (just starting out).  The irony is that a very similar situation played out between Einstein and Whittaker!

In 1905, Einstein was just starting out, having finished his Ph.D. that same year.  Whittaker had been working as a fellow of Trinity College since 1896 and in 1906 he would be a professor and the Royal Astronomer of Ireland.  Though it is not obvious that Whittaker immediately dismissed Einstein’s contribution to relativity (as he would not publish volume 2 until 1953), it seems clear that even in 1910 he felt that the important work had been done earlier.  (It is worth noting that the 1910 edition of the book included nothing of Einstein’s paper, though he had plenty of time since 1905 to include it, if he were so inclined).

Though the situation is not precisely parallel, it is rather amusing that Whittaker was chiding earlier researchers for something very similar to his own future actions!

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