Over the years a fair number of the blog posts here have been fairly speculative, basically me thinking out loud about something that has recently crossed my mind or my path. What follows is one of those posts and as I begin writing I have a germ of an idea what I think I want to say but I can’t guarantee that what will come out is what I initial intended or that it will be particularly illuminating or informative. At the end of last week I had the following very brief exchange with zoologist and historian, Matthew the Mancunian Maggot Man (@matthewcobb)
MC: What would have happened if Einstein fell under a tram in 1900? What difference would it have made, for how long?
Me: Not a lot, Poincaré was almost there and others were working on the various problems. I’d guess at most a ten-year delay
MC: So are there any true examples of ‘great men’ or is science all over-determined?
My instantaneous response to Mathew’s last comment was yes there are great men in the history of science and Einstein was certainly one of them but not in the sense that people usually mean when they use the term. It is this response that I will try to unpack and elucidate here.
When people describe Einstein as a great man of science what they usually mean is that if he hadn’t lived, see Matthew’s original question, we ‘wouldn’t have the theories of relativity’ or ‘physics would have been held back for decades or even longer’. Both of the expression in scare quote are ones that occur regularly following statements along the lines of if X hadn’t existed we wouldn’t have Y and both are expressions that I think should be banned from #histSTM. They should be banned because they are simply not true.
Let’s take a brief look at the three papers Einstein published in 1905 that made his initial reputation. The paper on quantum theory, for which he would eventually get his Nobel Prize, was, of course, in response to Planck’s work in this field and was a topic on which many would work in the first half of the twentieth century. The so-called black body problem, which sparked off the whole thing, was regarded as one of the most important unsolved problems in physics at the turn of the century. Brownian motion, the subject of the second paper, was another hot topic with various people producing mathematically formulations of it in the nineteenth century. In fact Marian Smoluchowski produced a solution very similar to Einstein’s independently, which was published in 1906. This just leaves Special Relativity. The problem solved here had been debated ever since it had been known that the Clerk Maxwell equations did not agree with Newtonian physics. We have both Lorentz and FitzGerald producing the alternative to the Newtonian Galilean transformations that lie at the heart of Einstein’s Special Relativity theory. The Michelson-Morley experiment also demanded a solution. Poincaré had almost reached that solution when Einstein pipped him at the post. The four dimensional space-time continuum now considered so central to the whole concept was delivered, not by Einstein, but by his one time teacher Minkowski. Minkowski’s formulation was, of course, also central for the General Theory of Relativity; the solution for the field equations of which were found independently by Einstein and Hilbert, although Hilbert clearly acknowledged Einstein’s priority.Without going into a lot of detail it should be clear that Einstein is solving problems on which a number of other people are working and making important contributions. He is not pulling new physics out of a hat but solving problems over-determined by the field of physics itself.
What about other ‘great men’? The two most obvious examples are also physicists, Galileo and Newton. I’ve already done a major demolition job on Galileo several years ago, in which I show that everything he worked on was being worked on parallel by other highly competent scholars that you can read here. And a more recent version here.
So what about Newton?As should be well known Leibnitz and Newton both developed calculus roughly contemporaneously, even more important, as I explained here, they were both building on foundations laid down by other leading seventeenth-century mathematicians. Newton was anticipated in his colour theory of white light by the Bohemian scholar Jan Marek Marci. As I’ve explained here and here Newton was only one of three people who developed a reflecting telescope in the 1660s. Robert Hooke anticipated and probably motivated Newton on the theory of universal gravity and Newton’s work on dynamics built on the work of many others beginning with Tartaglia and Benedetti in the sixteenth century. His first law of motion was from Isaac Beeckman via Descartes and the second from Christiaan Huygens from whose work he also derived the law of gravity. Once again we have a physicist working on problem of his time that were being worked actively on by other competent scholars.
I think this brief analysis that the work of these ‘great men’, Einstein, Galileo and Newton, was to a large extent over-determined that is dictated by the scientific evolution of their respective times and their finding solutions to those problems, solutions that others also found contemporaneously, does not qualify them as special, as ‘great men’.
Having said all of that I would be insane to deny that all three of these physicists are, with right, regarded as special, as great men, so what is the solution to this seeming paradox?
I think the answer lies not in the fact that they solved the problems that they solved but in the breadth and quality of their work. Each of them did not just solve one major problem but a whole series of them and their solutions were of a quality and depth unequalled by others also offering solutions. This can be illustrated by looking at Hooke and Newton on gravity. Hooke got there first and there are good grounds for believing that his work laid the foundations for Newton’s. However whereas Hooke’s contribution consist of a brief series of well founded speculations, Newton built with his Principia a vast mathematical edifice that went on to dominate physics for two hundred years. Put simply it is not the originality or uniqueness of their work but the quality and depth of it that makes these researchers great men.