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History of special relativity

  1. May 8, 2008 #1

    it's very interesting, that many parts of special relativity were developed before Einstein by Lorentz, Larmor and Poincaré. (Including relativity of simultaneity, synchronisation by light signals, group property of Lorentz Transformation, connection between mass and energy etc.) For example, I found much information at:

    However, why are those facts only known to historians of science and not mentioned in most physics-textbooks?

    Last edited by a moderator: May 9, 2008
  2. jcsd
  3. May 8, 2008 #2


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    Because it is of secondary importance.
  4. May 8, 2008 #3
    Some of it was proposed by Galileo as well!

    The reason is that some science textbooks are concerned only with teaching the "what" of science and not the "how we got there." This is a shame, because I think there's much to be learned about the future of science by looking at its past. For example, if physicists paid more attention to the way quantum mechanics was discovered (i.e., by accident as a solution to the black body radition problem, which was thought to be one of the "few" "minor" mysteries remaining in physics at the end of the 19th century) they might be less likely to be so married to their current theories.
  5. May 8, 2008 #4


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    I agree, I should have stated that what I wrote was not my own opinion but perhaps the agrument one may have to obmit historical perspectives of physics.

    Perhaps a course in "history of physical science" should be a part of the curriculum in undergraduate and graduate education programs?
  6. May 8, 2008 #5
    Another problem is, that many students (I think) are puzzled, if they here expressions like Lorentz-Transformation, Minkowski-space, Poincaré-group - without knowing where the names of those expressions are coming from.

    Also many people (including physicists) believe, that special relativity was invented within some months by Einstein alone - but very few know, that this theory (as Einstein himself admitted) can be seen as an interpretation of Lorentz's electrodynamics. That does not diminish Einstein's achievements, but brings them into the correct historical perspective.
  7. May 8, 2008 #6

    Or how about how the Hamiltonian is one of the most important concepts in quantum mechanics, yet is named after a 19th century mathematician who'd never even heard of a photon!
  8. May 8, 2008 #7


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    While some historical perspective is useful at times, the physics textbook's primary mission is convey the physics and how we understand it today, possibly using modern pedagogy which may be at odds with a historical development. Some sidebar comments on history would be appropriate.

    However, I think that some topics (special relativity, especially) is better developed from a non-historical point of view... unless the treatment is good enough to keep students from getting trapped in discussions of various paradoxes, usually with imprecise terminology. It's okay to let them stumble over them... but you better get them out.

    "...history is best left to the historians" - JL Synge

    (What many textbooks lack, in my opinion, are references back to the original sources or to historical presentations.... for those who may be interested.)
  9. May 9, 2008 #8
    Hmm, think about the formula E=mc². Many believe that the developments on nuclear fission and the atomic bomb are based on this formula. However, in historical persective, this seems not to be the case. For example, Werner Heisenberg wrote in 1958:

    Heisenberg, W.: Physics And Philosophy: The Revolution In Modern Science. Harper & Brothers, New York 1958, pp. 118-119.

  10. May 9, 2008 #9


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    My engineering curriculum contained just such a course (focusing on engineering-related history). It would make sense for physics majors to take such a course as well.
  11. May 12, 2008 #10
    Another interesting point is the relation between Poincaré and Einstein. Of course, there is a big difference between Poincare and Einstein (because Poincare never abandoned the ether). Bu it is hardly understandable why Einstein did not mentioned Poincare in his 1905-paper in connection with relativity of simultaneity, the relativity principle etc.. We know that Einstein read Poincares 1902-book "Science and Hypothesis" and most likely also Poincarés 1900-paper (he cited it in 1906).

    Here are some achievements of Poincaré:
    a) In 1895 he stated that the relativity principle is proved by Michelson-Morley
    b) In 1900, he explained Lorentz's local time as the result of a synchronization procedure by light signals, resulting in some sort of relativity of simultaneity between coordinates in the ether frame and a moving frame. In the same paper, Poincaré found out, that electromagnetic energy is equivalent to some sort of "fictitious" mass by m=E/c².
    c) In 1904 he stated, that within Lorentz's theory the speed of light is constant in all frames of reference.
    d) In 1905 he completed Lorentz's theory of electrons and derived full covariance of the electrodynamic equations and also stated, that lorentz-invariance is a necessary condition also for non-electric phenomena.
  12. May 12, 2008 #11
    Heisenberg's description above is rather nit-picky and looks, to me, more like an attempt to diminish Einstein's contribution than to state any new information. The formula E=mc^2 allowed physicists to perform the calculations necessary to achieve a sustained nuclear reaction (specifically, it helped them determine critical mass and yields). Prior to Einstein, people had only a rough idea of the relation between mass and energy, or understood that the energy released in a nuclear reaction was directly proportional to the reduction in atomic weight of the fissile material (accounting for the liberated neutrons).
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