Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré’s Maps
At the core of Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity was his definition of time simultaneity in terms of coordinating clocks by electromagnetic signals. Author Peter Galison, a historian of science at Harvard University, argues that this apparently great theoretical insight had a real-world foundation. Einstein’s work in the Bern patent office and his resulting exposure to real, material time-keeping devices (“Einstein’s clocks”) was important in the development of his ideas on the more theoretical aspects of time.
In Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré’s Maps: Empires of Time Galison also looks at the ideas and life of Jules Henri Poincaré, who at the turn of the twentieth century was one of the most productive and important French physicists and one of Einstein’s leading competitors in the race to understand the true nature of time. Unlike the then obscure Einstein, Poincaré was internationally known. He was a leading figure at the Paris Bureaus des Longitudes, the French agency charged with developing accurate maps (“Poincaré’s maps”).
His insistence that the real world not only intruded into what historians and scientists have commonly thought of as a theoretical and abstract breakthrough in physics, but that the real world could have been essential for the breakthrough, is Galison’s great contribution. He convincingly contends that the growing insight into time coordination during the second half of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century was the result of a continuous interplay between abstract thought and concrete application. By substituting a very messy science-technology interface for what others have seen as either two separate spheres or a linear relationship not only challenges our understanding of what happened in 1905, but offers a new model for interpreting other events in the history of science.
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Booklist 99, nos. 19/20 (June 1, 2003): 1719.
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Library Journal 128, no. 13 (August 15, 2003): 124.
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The New York Times, August 17, 2003, Section 7, p. 9.
The New York Times Book Review 152, no. 52578 (August 17, 2003): 9-11.
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