[lit-ideas] Re: Einstein

  • From: Michael Chase <goya@xxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Mon, 31 Oct 2005 08:41:46 +0100

Le 29 oct. 05, Ã 15:18, Andy Amago a Ãcrit :

[Original Message]
From: Michael Chase <goya@xxxxxxx>
To: <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
Date: 10/29/2005 7:54:16 AM
Subject: [lit-ideas] Re: Einstein

I would think your reply brilliant if it didn't completely miss the mark of what I was getting at. I never belittled Einstein's accomplishments.

M.C. Um, yes you did : ÂÂI was disappointed in Einstein..", etc.

I'm disappointed in him, not in his accomplishments

M.C. It's still not clear to me what his personal failures were. Did he not help enough with the housework?


If the most brilliant minds in Western history thought about light (if
they did), for most of that time it was from a philosophical perspective.

M.C. Um, depends on what you call philosophical. Einstein's work was pretty darned "philosophical" as well : he imagined, among other things, what the world must look like from the perspective of a travelling photon

There's also someone else who came up with the same idea at the same time,
but I don't recall his name (perhaps you can supply it).

M.C. There are always people coming up with the same or similar ideas in science. It's been claimed that Poincarà was the real inventor of relativity. Compare the controversy over the precedence of Newton and Leibniz in the invention of calculus, of Wallace and Darwin in natural selection; Galileo's discovery of the pendulum may have been anticipated by Mersenne, etc., etc. None of that, it seems to me, is all that important.


He was married to a mathematician (the famous line where she offered to
check his math). His friends were mathematicians and physicists. His life
and his heart were not in his day job. Being married, and not contributing
to family life for the most part, freed up his time.

M.C. Freed up his time ? So you think having a full-time job and having to revolutionize physics on nights and weekends is cushy situation?

 His wife did not have
the same advantages.

M.C. Which advantages were those, precisely? Did she have a full-time job in a field that didn't particularly interest her, too?

What was that something ? Intelligence, clearly ; creativity, but
nobody has a real good idea of what that is. Great scientific advances
are often carried out by outsiders (like Einstein at the time, a measly
patent clerk),

Why are you so hung up that he was a patent clerk?

M.C. Because it's important, that's why. It supports my contention (which is of course not only mine, but common to most historians of science since Kuhn - whom you might want to read, by the way - ) that important scientific progress, or Kuhnian revolutions, are often made by outsiders. There are *reasons* for this : normal science is programmed to exclude major upsettings of the hypotheses everyone takes for granted. According to Craig Loehle ("A guide to increased creativity in research? Inspiration or perspiration?Ââ Bioscience 40 (1990) 123-129),

"Most science is driven by grant funding, which is directed towards the solvable. Had a young Einstein turned up today and put in a research submission along the lines that he wished to study the nature of space and time by conducting thought experiments in an armchair, supported by some esoteric mathelatics, and that his research would last a lifetime, he would not have been funded. Similarly, Darwin would not have gone very far had he put in a proposal that, although trained as a geologist, he wished to study the problem of speciation by travelling for five years on a research vessel, collecting every specimen and fact that he could find, and then spend another 15 years thinking it all over before writing a book".

Another example : when the Soviet scientist Belusov discovered that a suitably-prepared chemical mixture would go through a cycle of complex patterns before settling down, in apparent contradiction of the second law of thermodynmaics, no journal would publish his results : since he contradicted that law, they said, he must have done his experiments wrong. He finally smuggled his results into print as an annex to a completely unrelated publication, where it caught the attention of Zhabotinsky, who confirmed his results. Now there's nothing more banal in chelmistry than the Belusov-Zhabotinsky (BZ) reaction, which is used among other things as a model in the study of heart arrhythmia (electrical waves can propagate from the pacemaker cells in the heart in much the same way as waves of chemical reactions in the BZ reaction)

The same holds true in philosophy. Many, if not most, important advances have been made by philosophers outside the university (Spinoza, Descartes, Nietzsche) or by those whose relationship to the university was problematic (Wittgenstein). C.S. Pierce worked as a telegraph operator.

His body was a patent
clerk.  His mind was in his physics.

M.C. Sounds easy enough. Guess anybody should be able to put in an eight-hour day, then come home and revolutionize an entire scientific discipline in one's spare time.

I, for one, am going to start tonight, thanks to Andy's inspiration. But first I'd better go and put in my eight hours at my normal job, even if, like Einstein, I too am married, which apparently frees up a whole lot of my time.

Michael Chase
7, rue Guy Moquet
Villejuif 94801

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