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Are Lorentz and Poincare insufficiently credited for special relativity?

  1. May 11, 2010 #1
    Einstein is commonly regarded as the primary inventor of special relativity. I'd like to trust the collective wisdom of others, but I never feel fully convinced. The argument is typically "Though people like Lorentz and Poincare have worked out most of the math it's only Einstein who realized the physical significance."

    Personally I find this argument very handwaving. IMHO since the Lorentz transformation (NOT discovered by Einstein) allows you to transform into new spacetime variables in which the particle velocities are different, isn't it inevitable that someone would realize this is just a change of inertial reference frame? For example, when we try to calculate the motion of two electrons separated by some distance and initially travelling with the same speed in the same direction, we can use the Lorentz transformation to set the initial speeds of both electrons to 0, and now the problem is massively simplified. Even if Einstein didn't publish his 1905 paper, if people used this kind of tricks a lot, wouldn't someone finally realize this is just a change of reference frame, which has nothing to do with aether?

    I've also learned that Poincare actually realized the fact that you can never experimentally determine your velocity with respect to the aether, before Einstein published his paper. Poincare talked discussed this fact in his philosophical writings but not physics writings. If Poincare realized this startling fact, isn't it fair to say that he more or less already understood relativity?

    It seems the only thing that distinguishes Einstein from Lorentz and Poincare was his interpretation. But 20th century physics, especially quantum mechanics, has taught us the importance of instrumentalism in physics, i.e. different interpretations of the same underlying theory are redundant as long as they have exactly the same experimental prediction. The emphasis of the superiority of Einstein's interpretation is to the contrary of this attitude. Einstein's credit lies in performing the Occam's Razor reduction, but I think this is the easier step compared with the actual formulation of the theory.

    Finally, I think that in 1905 special relativity, if not completely elucidated, is already on the corner, and even without Einstein someone would elucidate it, probably within a few years. It is my impression that general relativity, rather than special relativity, is the real masterpiece of Einstein. Without Einstein, It's not clear if anyone else would even realize the necessity of Riemannian geometry in constructing a modern theory of gravity, and I wouldn't be surprised if today's physicists are still using fudge factors like effective potentials to patch up Newton's gravity theory and explain phenomenon such as precession of Mercury orbit.

    This is just my 2 cents. I hope my opinion is not too controversial to be suitable for this forum.
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  3. May 11, 2010 #2

    George Jones

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    Even though it probably won't change your opinion, read (if you have access)

    http://scitation.aip.org/getabs/servlet/GetabsServlet?prog=normal&id=AJPIAS000074000009000818000001&idtype=cvips&gifs=yes&ref=no [Broken].
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  4. May 11, 2010 #3


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    Weinberg in his GR textbook says "Fitzgerald, Lorentz and Poincare .... Poincare in particular seems to have glimpsed the revolutionary implications that this would have for mechanics, and Whittaker gives the credit for special relativity to Poincare and Lorentz. Without entering this controversy, it is safe to say that a comprehensive solution to the problems of relativity in electrodynamics and mechanics was first set out in detail in 1905 by Albert Einstein"

    For GR, I think several other interesting contributors were Minkowski, Nordstrom (first relativistic theory of gravity!) and Hilbert. Would we have GR now without Einstein? I think it is possible, say via the route that Deser, Feynman, Weinberg etc took, but of course, we can't know for sure, since they had the benefit of hindsight.
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