Einstein's Clocks, Poincaré's Maps Analysis

Peter Galison

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.

Review Sources

American Scientist 91, no. 6 (November/December, 2003): 552-54.

Booklist 99, nos. 19/20 (June 1, 2003): 1719.

Kirkus Reviews 71, no. 11 (June 1, 2003): 788.

Library Journal 128, no. 13 (August 15, 2003): 124.

The New York Review of Books 50, no. 17 (November 6, 2003): 42-44.

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.

Publishers Weekly 250, no. 16 (April 21, 2003): 45.

Science 302, no. 5653 (December 19, 2003): 2072.

Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré’s Maps

In 1905 Albert Einstein announced his theory of special relativity, demolishing the concept of absolute time, an idea which had been one of the foundations of physics since its establishment by Sir Isaac Newton more than two centuries earlier. Einstein argued that time moved differently for clocks at rest than for clocks in motion. His paper “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies” initiated a great revolution in physics. At the core of that revolution lay Einstein’s new way of defining simultaneity: Einstein viewed simultaneity in terms of coordinating clocks by electromagnetic signals.

During the ensuing century since Einstein published his paper, historians, philosophers, and physicists have developed what might be called a conventional interpretation of the events leading to that publication. In this book, Peter Galison challenges that conventional interpretation. Drawing on the great mass of scholarship generated during the last three decades of the twentieth century on the history of modern physics and Einstein in particular, Galison presents a very different image of Einstein than that usually seen in books written for lay audiences.

Before Galison, historians have concluded that the job Einstein held at the time of his great insights in time relativity—patent examiner in the Swiss patent office in Berne—helped him with his scientific research only indirectly, by providing employment which did not interfere with his physics. It allowed him the time and energy to focus on his research. Put another way, Einstein’s job has been viewed as independent of, or incidental to, the development of his physics theories. Galison, however, asserts quite the opposite. He methodically argues that Einstein’s work in a patent office, especially the Bern patent office, and his resulting exposure to real, material time-keeping devices in a country where clock-making was an art, was important in the development of his ideas on time (hence, the reference in the title to “Einstein’s clocks”). Governments and businesses worried about time coordination; the coordination of time-keeping devices via the application of electromagnetism was important to the military and to the railroad. Even the unusual style of Einstein’s famous paper, which has been commented upon by a number of historians, can be explained by Galison through more careful consideration of the physicist’s place of employment. He points out that the style is more akin to a patent application than a physics paper. In particular, the lack of footnotes and the “precise and austere style of writing” resemble the patent applications that Einstein spent so many hours reading.

In his reinterpretation of Einstein, Galison rejects the common notion of him as a “philosopher-scientist” lost in abstract thought, absent-minded and a bit rumpled, an image which is commonplace in popular science tomes and narrative history. Instead he presents Einstein as a “patent officer-scientist,” understanding relativity theory through the use of modern, concrete technology. His Einstein is much more a man of the world.

Galison also challenges the conventional view of the relationship between science and technology. Historians of science have often presented the transformation of basic science into technology or application as an essentially linear process, which begins at one point in time with the basic research and concludes sometime later with an application or technological spin-off. In this model, the transformation of science into technology is sometimes done by the scientists themselves, sometimes by inventors, engineers, or scientists other than those who conducted the basic research. The history of industrial research has frequently been presented using this model.

Alternatively, the process can go in the other direction. Technological development or applied research can sometimes result in unexpected breakthroughs in the fundamental understanding of the universe. An effort to enhance telecommunications can lead, for example, to evidence for the big bang theory of the universe. In either case, however, the relationship is linear. Whether the path is from science to technology or technology to science, it is a straightforward...

(The entire section is 1737 words.)