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Early GR Experts

  1. Aug 6, 2013 #1
    Here is an anecdote about Arthur Eddington:
    So Eddington thought only he and Einstein understood GR, at some point in history. My question is: did Eddington not realize that David Hilbert was able to derive the Einstein Field Equations before Einstein was? Why did Eddington not feel that Hilbert understood GR? And what did he think about the other early experts: Schwarzchild, Lemaitre, de Sitter, Friedmann, Robertson, Walker, etc.? Were they not smart enough for Sir Adding-One? Or was there some intricate chronology of who understood what when?
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 6, 2013 #2
    Too bad we can't ask him :wink:

    Or was there some intricate chronology of who understood what when?

    Is that not published works?
     
  4. Aug 6, 2013 #3

    robphy

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  5. Aug 6, 2013 #4

    George Jones

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    This is far from clear.

    Eddington was using hyperbole.
     
    Last edited: Aug 6, 2013
  6. Aug 6, 2013 #5

    WannabeNewton

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    To be fair, even if the Eddington quote is mythology, there's a huge difference between being able to derive the EFEs from a variational principle (which is a stride in mathematics) and being able to understand the physics of GR.
     
  7. Aug 6, 2013 #6

    robphy

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  8. Aug 6, 2013 #7
    It does seem that the Einstein-Hilbert priority dispute is still contested. But from the fourth link in robphy's post:
    So unless that author is misquoting Einstein, it seems Einstein believed Hilbert to be the only other person to understand GR during the period he was working on deriving the EFEs.

    Maybe the answer to my OP is that the quote is just another example of Eddington's over-inflated ego. That seems to be the trend in most of what I've read about Eddington.
     
    Last edited: Aug 6, 2013
  9. Aug 6, 2013 #8

    WannabeNewton

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    The tidbit about Hilbert wouldn't surprise me though. The man was unimaginably brilliant. Was Eddington really that egotistical?
     
  10. Aug 6, 2013 #9

    atyy

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    At that time, although GR had been invented, the :tongue2: remained in the future.

    Well, at least he can be given the benefit of the doubt for that one. I think with Chandrasekhar the story was different. Even then, in the article that robphy linked above, Chandrasekhar ends with a quote from Eddington that he seems to have agreed with.

    "It is not suggested that any patriotic duty to our country demands the severance of scientific relations. The suggestion seems to come mainly from an impulse to strike a high moral attitude. It may be well to remember that a moral attitude is not always the more convincing for being ostentatiously asserted.

    I conclude by urging the appeal of Sir Arthur Evans, President-Elect of the British Association; his last sentence refers to antiquarian studies, but it is a call to astronomers also: 'We have not ceased to share common task with those who today are our enemies. We cannot shirk the fact that tomorrow we shall be once more labourers together in the same field. It is incumbent on us to do nothing which should shut the door to mutual intercourse in subjects like our own, which lie apart from the domain of human passions in the silent avenues of the past.'"
     
    Last edited: Aug 6, 2013
  11. Aug 6, 2013 #10

    Nugatory

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    It's also just barely possible that he had a sense of humor. Some physicists do.
     
  12. Aug 6, 2013 #11

    WannabeNewton

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    What is this sense of humor you speak of? Is there a section in MTW where I can look it up :tongue2:
     
  13. Aug 6, 2013 #12
    Here is a math book about jokes:

    [Broken]
     
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  14. Aug 6, 2013 #13
    Based on some other posts in that earlier thread, I would seriously doubt whether Eddington was joking. According to that thread, Buckminster Fuller claimed that his book with a section on Einstein was called into question because his name didn't appear on the "list" of people who "understood Einstein". From http://www.bfi.org/?q=node/129 (Thanks to inflector who posted this in the aforementioned thread!)
    So if you believe that, then either Eddington was being serious or he made an egotistical joke that, because nobody realized it was a joke, started a very pervasive myth (that he never made any attempt to redact) that only a select few people actually understood GR.
     
  15. Aug 8, 2013 #14
    I was just watching a seminar by Juan Maldacena and he quoted Einstein as saying in a discussion with Lemaitre:
    So apparently Lemaitre didn't make it onto the "list." I wonder if Einstein held the same feelings for some of the other early experts--maybe even Hilbert?
     
  16. Aug 8, 2013 #15

    robphy

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    I tried to google the "quote" you quoted...
    the closest I found was from Wikipedia
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georges_Lemaître
    which might show the more-correct quote in context
     
  17. Aug 8, 2013 #16
    The idea of a "list" of people who "understand general relativity" is obviously silly. The New York Times may have encouraged that notion in the general public in 1919 when they reported in their eclipse article that "only 12 men in the world understand Einstein's theory". They apparently pulled the number 12 out of the air. There are other apochrophal stories citing various other numbers (like 3 in Chandra's anecdote, poking fun at both Silberstein and Eddington, his opponent in the stellar evolution affair), usually meant as jokes. Hilbert is a good example of why it's silly to talk about a "list" of who "understands", because although Einstein certainly believed (and said) that Hilbert understood general relativity, he (Einstein) also said that Hilbert's ansatz, based on Mie's theory, was "childlike" and that Hilbert was "just like an infant, unaware of the pitfalls of the real world". Of course, it's also been said that Einstein himself mis-understood general relativity in various aspects. (See, for example, Synge's complaints about the "equivalence principle", or Einstein's static universe that was unstable, or his early association with Mach's principle which he later renounced, his argument with deSitter, or the difficulties Einstein had with gravitational waves, believing for a while that they couldn't exist, etc., etc). It is a complex and deep subject, and the understanding of it is not a binary "does/doesn't" proposition. There's always more to learn. But certainly in the early days it was considered difficult to even understand it on any level, even for professional physicists, partly because of unfamiliarity with tensor calculus. Ehrenfest commented once that, when he saw Lorentz and Einstein huddled together discussing some fine details of general relativity he (Ehrenfest) felt like an outsider, as if they were Freemasons who knew the secret handshake and he was left out.
     
    Last edited: Aug 8, 2013
  18. Aug 8, 2013 #17

    SteamKing

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    Hilbert came to study physics late in his career, beginning serious study on the eve of the outbreak of World War I. After the war, when the study of GR and QM intensified in the 1920s, Hilbert was quoted as saying, dismissively of physicists, that "Physics was too hard for physicists", and he further implied that the way that some physicists handled the math of their field was in a rather sloppy fashion. Perhaps Eddington had heard of Hilbert's remarks, perhaps Eddington was not familiar with Hilbert as physicist. What is true is that from the 1920s on, physics and higher mathematics became inextricably linked, such that one had to be a rather good mathematician in order to be good at physics.
     
  19. Aug 8, 2013 #18

    robphy

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  20. Aug 8, 2013 #19
    All very interesting comments! Thanks guys!

    I think there might be some hints as to what started this myth in Einstein's personality and his feelings over the years. Russel E, am I safe in assuming that Einstein's comment on Hilbert being "unaware of the pitfalls of the real world" came later than his comments on how Hilbert "truly understood" GR? If so, it's clear that Einstein was definitely willing to change his mind about who understood what. I would say that Einstein's initial criticism of Lemaitre is another good example (to add to Russel E's list) of where Einstein clearly misunderstood the physics--he was too busy promulgating his nonsense cosmological model to see that Lemaitre was actually the one to formulate a realistic cosmological model. Later, Einstein said that the cosmological constant that he introduced to create his steady-state model was "the biggest mistake" he ever made. [And now we believe there actually is a nonzero cosmological constant!] So perhaps his admission of his "biggest mistake" was meant as an admission that he was wrong about Lemaitre. So maybe the myth got started because Einstein himself (and the others who were actually on the list, like Eddington) didn't understand GR and his misunderstanding led him to dismiss the non-"listed" experts who actually held a better understanding [at least with respect to certain aspects of GR].
     
    Last edited: Aug 8, 2013
  21. Aug 8, 2013 #20
    Yes, I meant Synge. I'll try to edit my message to fix that.

    I don't think we're talking about a "myth in Einstein's personality". Obviously in early Nov 1915 it was fair to say that the number of people who understood general relativity was 0, and by the end of November several people had various levels of understanding.

    He had both of those opinions simultaneously. They aren't mutually contradictory. He wrote the "truly understood" comment prior to the theory even being complete (when he didn't even understand it himself), but even then he disapproved of Hilbert's approach, which was based on Mie's theory and the electrodynamic model of matter (which of course turned out to be untenable).

    Yes, that's what I was referring to when I mentioned Einstein's unstable static model of the universe (although I wouldn't call it "nonsense"; it was just unstable and therefore not physically realistic).

    I really think you're barking up the wrong tree with this "list" idea. That was just a kooky explanation from Buckmeister Fuller, who was afronted that people didn't think he was qualified to write about general relativity. It was a figure of speech. There was never any "list". He just meant he was not a credentialed expert on the subject, so people were skeptical of his expertise. There was good reason for people to be wary in those days, since the subject was such a fad, and lots of people wrote about it who didn't understand it at all.
     
  22. Aug 8, 2013 #21

    PAllen

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    While the overall silliness of this story has been addressed, the kernel of truth is that Eddington really was a pioneer and wrote possibly the first full textbook treatment of GR in 1923 (I actually found this book quite readable and useful circa 1970, along with Pauli's shorter 1921 book). This was earlier than the work of everyone on your list except Schwarzschild, who died immediately after doing his work, and, of course Hilbert.
     
  23. Aug 8, 2013 #22
    Oops, I guess that sentence is grammatically ambiguous. The hints are in Einstein's personality and feelings over the years--not the myths. It might be better to write the sentence as: I think there might be some hints (as to what started this myth) in Einstein's personality and his feelings over the years.


    Don't you think that instead of them being simultaneous, it's possible there was a transition paralleling Einstein's transition from being "absolutely delighted" with Hilbert to being annoyed (which, as the author quoted above points out, happened in a relatively short time)?

    Edit: It also seems from the context that the comment was written after the EFEs were derived: "Only one colleague truly understood it, and he now tries skillfully to appropriate it."

    Okay, if we must nitpick with regards to semantics, I would say that unstable solutions aren't nonsense in a mathematical sense, but asserting that an unstable solution physically obtains would fly in the face of physical common sense.


    I'm not sure that's clear from the Fuller quotation. Do you have anything to back up that he was being metaphorical? I wouldn't be surprised if Fuller's publishers saw the quotation from the New York Times (apparently they were being serious?) and took it seriously.
     
    Last edited: Aug 8, 2013
  24. Aug 8, 2013 #23

    robphy

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  25. Aug 8, 2013 #24
    I don't see anything in Einstein's personality that would encourage a belief that no one (or very few) understood his ideas. In fact, his was quite accommodating when it came to issuing endorsements of other peoples' books and articles on his work. (Witness his endorsement of Fuller's writings.) I would say a bigger circumstance contributing to the fact (not the myth) that very few people in the English speaking world took up the study of relativity before 1919 was that the theory originated at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Berlin in November 1915, at the height of the First World War, when many people in the UK (and even US) were not in the mood to extoll German science (or German anything). Eddington was a Quaker and conscientious objector, so he was unusually pre-disposed to overlook the nationalistic aversions - especially for Einstein, who was also an pacificist and internationalist.

    The sequence of events and communications between Hilbert and Einstein in November 1915 has been studied in great detail. There was a temporary "falling out" between the two, because Einstein was annoyed that Hilbert was trying to 'nostrify' his theory, but a few weeks later they patched things up and remained on very good terms for the rest of their lives. This really has nothing to do with whether or not either or both of them understood relativity perfectly, then or later.

    Well, Einstein finally arrived at the final field equations on Nov 25, and he wrote that comment about Hilbert trying to appropriate his work in a letter to Zangger on Nov 26, so he was referring to communications he had received from Hilbert prior to arriving at the final field equations. (Some have suggested that Einstein got the idea for the trace term from a draft of Hilbert's paper, but this is disputed.)

    The Times quote in 1919 said 12, whereas Fuller's story in 1935 says 9. The Times story in 1919 probably wasn't too absurdly wrong (maybe just by a factor of 10?), especially in English speaking countries, but Fuller's story was in 1935, by which time thousands of people had studied general relativity, and yet Fuller has the number dropping from 12 to 9. That's just ridiculous. Also, note that Fuller refers to lists (plural), and says he wasn't on ANY list, and also note that he wasn't writing about general relativity, he was writing about Einstein's philosophy. (For the extent of Fuller's understanding of relativity, take a look at that funny telegram where he "explained" E=mc2 to a friend.)
     
  26. Aug 8, 2013 #25
    Thanks, Russell E! You seem to be very well versed in the life and times of Einstein! You have convinced me that Fuller's story must be more than a little exaggerated. With regards to the Einstein-Hilbert priority debate, I would say that if it shows anything, it's that Hilbert was extremely gracious and non-egotistical in how he handled it. He could easily have been the Leibniz to Einstein's Newton. (And his comment about physics being too hard for physicists has more to it than just a jab at physicists--Heisenberg was a great example of a physicist who made several notable gaffes because of his lacking mathematical education.)

    The only thing about Einstein's personality that I was trying to point out was his tendency to instantly dismiss anyone who disagreed with him as someone who didn't 'understand the physics'. And his celebrity was such that if Einstein said you don't understand physics, your reputation was bound to suffer seriously. Lemaitre is a perfect example of where it was Einstein who actually didn't understand the physics, and he got labelled as doing "atrocious" physics. I'd bet that the "freemasons club" of early relativists you mentioned, Eddington included, helped to reinforce the "If you disagree with Einstein, your physics is atrocious" attitude, possibly leading to the myth.
     
    Last edited: Aug 8, 2013
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