EINSTEIN AND POINCARÉ (p6)
The contrast between Einstein and Poincaré, and their different understandings of what they were doing represent two grand competing visions of modern science for the 20th century. Although the equations that Poincaré and Einstein come up with around relativity theory are very similar — essentially identical — Poincaré always thought of what he was doing as fixing, repairing, or continuing the past by applying reason to it by. As one of his relatives once put it, he was filling in the blank spots on the map of the world. Einstein was willing to do things rather differently, to say that the old way of proceeding is too complicated, too filled with piecemeal solutions, and that what we need is something that starts over again with the classical purity of a few stark principles. Poincaré saw himself in some ways as saving an empire—the empire of France, no doubt, but also the empire of nineteenth century physics. His was a grand ambition, but it’s a different kind of modernism from Einstein’s. It’s a reparative, ameliorative modernism, a modernism with all the rational hopefulness of a third Republic Frenchman. Einstein’s is a much more disruptive, classifying, purifying modernism. It is only by understanding this triple intersection of philosophy, physics, and technology that one can really grasp what each of these alternative visions of the new century is about.
might ask, and I’ve often wondered, how to think about this
kind of event in the present. That is to say, is there an analogy
now to this kind of triple intersection? Here is how I think about
it: When you consider Poincaré and Einstein you’re dealing
with an attempt to understand time coordination and the synchronization
of clocks at a huge variety of scales. In some ways they’re
trying to figure out how to coordinate clocks inside a single room
or observatory, or a block, or a whole city, at the same time that
the people who are worried about these things are also sending cables
across the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Einstein and Poincaré are
not just worrying about such planetary scales, but also about how
to coordinate clocks in different reference frames in the universe
as a whole. They are asking, what does synchronization mean? What
does simultaneity mean? These are questions that occur at every scale,
from the smallest to the largest, from philosophy and physics all
the way down to electrical wiring along train tracks. In that sense
it is unlike most questions that we ask in science, since it doesn’t
have the character of starting out as something purely abstract that
then becomes applied physics and engineering, eventually ending up
on the factory floor. It’s also not a platonic ascension, or
a naive version of Marxism, in which machines and machine shop relations
are slowly abstracted to ever wider spheres until they become a theory
of the universe.
the kind of metaphor that we need to look at a situation like this.
Poincaré and Einstein are flipping back and forth between
philosophical questions, physics questions, and practical questions.
At the end of the 1890s Poincaré was publishing in journals
for map makers and longitude finders at the same time he was publishing
in physics journals and in the Journal of Metaphysics and Morals.
In his thinking he was and flipping back and forth extraordinarily
quickly between these three domains of philosophy, physics, and technology.