Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré s Maps: Empires of Time
W.W. Norton, 2003
Albert Einstein has become the poster boy for scientific genius. His image is on t-shirts, coffee mugs, and posters. Anytime someone wants a visual symbol for genius, they go with his face. The Theory of Relativity is used as a standard representation of a complex scientific theory, and his equation for the equivalence of mass and energy is bandied about by people who have no real idea what it means.
This mythologizing of Einstein has even crept in to the origin story for the Theory of Relativity. The legend has Einstein sitting idly at the Bern Patent Office, daydreaming away. Suddenly his daydreams coalesce into a complete Theory (and his hair instantaneously turns into an unkempt white mess), and the world changes.
While a pleasant image, especially to the many who aren’t conversant in the language of physics, it gives short shrift to the many other scientists who were working on the same problems at the same time.
One of those who came really close was the French physicist and mathematician Henri Poincaré.
A thirty-nine year old Poincaré joined the Bureau des Longitudes in 1893, which at the time was concerned with the matter of synchronizing time across the nation and the oceans. By the late 1800, trains and telegraphs had created an intricate network of connections across the globe. It became vital for both commerce and the military to be able to “synchronize their watches”. Governments in the industrialized world were arguing about how best to standardize time. While the Bureau worked on the matter from a practical standpoint, Poincaré pondered the theoretical issue of how you determine that two events happened at the same time when it takes a finite amount of time for information about their occurrence to get to you.
This “problem of simultaneity” was also what Einstein was working on in the early 1900s. The Bern Patent Office was a good place to do so. Almost every month, another patent application for a method of electronically synchronizing clocks was submitted. Einstein could not have been unaware of work being done in the area. Even outside the office, it would have been hard to ignore the issue. While Bern had some two dozen tower clocks all synched to a master, there was one suburb that had its own independent clock tower. There was even a spot where you could see both that tower and a Bern tower just by turning your head.
Galison argues that Poincaré was too grounded in “classical” mechanics to be able to make the leap into Relativity. Trained in essence as an engineer (Poincaré’s first job of significance was as a mine inspector), he saw the problem as a defect in need of repair using existing physics. Einstein, a bit of an outsider who spent his days examining new ideas, was better able to see that the structures of classical physics needed wholesale replacement.
His argument is a bit hard to follow, and therefore not really convincing. Frankly, given the biography he gives of Poincaré, it’s more likely for the reader to accept that Poincaré was simply too busy to devote enough effort to coming up with the theory on his own. While on the Bureau des Longitudes, he was chosen to serve as its president on three occasions. Running that organization as it oversaw a huge project must have taken a great deal of time and energy. On top of that, he still worked with the Corps des Mines, becoming its chief engineer and then Inspector General. And in the middle of all his government and scientific work, he found time to provide expert handwriting analysis on behalf of the defense in the Dreyfus Affair.
It’s also worth recalling (which Galison doesn’t) that Poincaré is all over twentieth century mathematics. There’s the Poincaré Conjecture, the Poincaré map, and the Poincaré Sphere, among others. His work on the “Three Body Problem” of celestial mechanics is one of the seminal works in chaos theory.
As to why Einstein was able to come up with Relativity and not Poincaré (or Lorentz, or Mach, or any of the other scientists working on the same problems), there are still arguments to be made that Einstein wasn’t actually the first. But instead of the career scientist working alongside colleagues at a major institution, we nevertheless prefer the image of the outsider puttering about in his basement workshop, coming up with fabulous new devices or theories on his own. At the very least, Galison shows that such an image isn’t accurate. No scientist truly works alone.