EINSTEIN AND POINCARÉ (p3)
More recently I’ve been looking at what I consider to be the third sub-culture of physics: the theorists. I want to get at how theorists in the production of the most abstract ideas of physics, whether it’s quantum field theory, relativity theory, or any other branch of theory, come to their concerns in relationship to very specific kinds of machines and devices in the world. Specifically, in Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré's Maps I pursue the vast concern about simultaneity in the late 19th century — what time was, and what clocks were. This had a crucial dimension that was abstract -and philosophical, but it also sprang from purely technological concerns. How, for example, do you make maps or send signals across undersea cables? How do you coordinate and shunt trains so they don’t smash into each other while going in opposite directions on the same track? Finally, my interest in theorists led me to look at the physics concerning the most pressing problem of the late 19th century, which was how electricity and magnetism work when an object moves through that all-pervasive entity people called “the ether.”
My interest in the materiality of science goes back to my childhood. My great-grandfather, who lived until his mid-90s, trained in Berlin and worked in Thomas Edison’s laboratory as an electrical engineer, and I spent a great amount of time with him in his basement laboratory. I was completely riveted by what he did. It was the kind of laboratory that you could imagine in a film about Dr. Frankenstein, with giant double throw switches, arcs of electricity in the dark space, and bottles of mercury lining the shelves. I loved every bit of it. I left high school when I was 17 to study physics and mathematics at the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris for a year. I had a chance to learn from one of the great mathematicians, Laurent Schwartz. I’d been to France a fair amount, spoke French, and wanted to go there because I was very interested in European politics—these were wild times politically—towards the end of the Vietnam War. I thought that the only chance I had of working in an interesting place would involve pursuing something in physics, so I wrote to various physics laboratories, and they must have taken me out of amusement at the idea of this American 17-year-old writing to the Polytechnique.
When I began I was interested in philosophical questions, and thought that studying physics was a way to get at some of these problems. I worked in a laboratory on plasma physics, which is now done in gigantic machines in huge laboratories, although at the time it was still possible to do small-scale experiments on devices not much bigger than a table. I became quite fascinated with the machinery, the signal generators, recording devides, oscilloscopes, and how theoretical knowledge about the world could come out of such material objects. In college at Harvard I found a way, having done a fair amount of physics, to combine it with history and philosophy.
This brings me back to Einstein.
The Einstein we know today is mostly based on Einstein’s later years, when he prided himself on his alienation from practically everything sociable and human, projecting an image of himself as a distracted, other-worldly character. We remember that Einstein who said that the best thing for a theoretical physicist would be to tend a lighthouse in quiet isolation from the world in order to be able to think pure thoughts. We have this picture of the theoretical physicist, and project it backwards to Einstein’s miraculous year, 1905. It is easy enough to think of him as working a day job in a patent office merely to keep body and soul together, while in actuality his real work was purely cerebral. Such a split existence never made sense to me; I wondered how his work in the details of machines and objects might connect to these abstract ideas, and began thinking about how relativity itself might have been lodged in the time, place, and machinery in which it was created.
later—one day in the summer of 1997—I was in a train
station in northern Europe, looking down the platforms at these beautifully
arranged clocks. The minute hands were all the same. I thought, “God,
they made these extraordinary clocks back then. What an extraordinarily
wonderful piece of machinery!” But I then noticed that the
second hands were also all clicking along in sync. That meant the
clocks were too good. So I thought that maybe they’re
not good clocks — maybe they’re synchronized clocks bound
together by electrical signals that advanced them together, in lockstep.
Maybe Einstein had seen such clocks when he was writing his paper