[Marxism] Galison on Albert Einstein and Fritz Adler

Les Schaffer schaffer at optonline.net
Thu Aug 11 18:37:43 MDT 2005

Michael Perelman forward to me offlist a link to an audio recording of a 
lecture by the Harvard physicist and historian Peter Galison, the 
lecture entitiled "The Assassin of Relativity". The subject of the 
lecture is the relationship between the young relativity-minded Einstein 
and the Austrian marxist Fritz Adler, the latter being the one who 
murdered Austrian minister-president Stürgkh


Here are  the links to the lecture:

   http://www.havenscenter.org/audio/audio.htm   (list of lectures)
(warning: 30 MB file!!!!)

First, something on Galison: two years ago he wrote a book entitled 
Einstein's Clocks, Poincare's Maps about which we had a brief discussion 
some time ago:

(and followups)

Galison is interested in -- paraphrasing here -- relating the science 
and politics and theory of knowledge of a time period together a  
non-reductionist way, rather than explaining several of these as 
ultimately determined by one lower lever determinant. i really liked his 
view of the time surrounding the developments of einsteins theory of 
special relativity, and so thought this current lecture where he carries 
on his historical work to be worth listening to. i did feel that Galison 
painted an interesting portrait of Einstein and Adler and their physics 
debates, but he is not so clear on the politics of the time. Michael 
tells me that Adler's father is considered  a big deal in Austrian 
socialism. So marxmailers might find the historical todbits in this 
lecture of some interest.

so here are some notes from the lecture in outline form:

1. Galison paints a rather wordly portait of  the early Einstein. he 
worked on patents, argued patent cases, ran experiments. he wasn't all 
"gedanken" experiment -- "thought experiment".  This goes along with 
Galison's thesis on the technical problems of the turn of the century in 
clock synchronization and their impact on the development of special 
relativity. Adler found himself fascinated by these "worldly" matters 
with deep physical import. Galison reminds that many of Einstein's 
seminal work was done very early on, much even as a grad student. 
(officially anyway)

3.  Galison see development of new physical theories as the resolution 
of a "tension". He discusses E's contribution to early quantum theory, 
particularly his work on the photoelectric effect. Galison notes an 
essential tension:  spherical expansion of light waves from a radiating 
point source (not the only possible model!!!!)  getting weaker and 
weaker further from the source, vs molecules spreading thru space but 
not breaking up. wave vs diffusion transport by particles. so Einstein 
thought of light like a gas, resolving asymmetries via a boltzmann-like 
kinetic theory approach.  continuous vs discrete. Einstein "solved" a 
different assymetry in special theory of relativity (magnet moves by 
coil, coil moves by magnet).

4.  Poincare hated the discrete approach to light that Einstein cooked 
up. said it was anathema to the way of science. EInstein got it from 
both sides, the elders and the younger quantum wunderkids.however, 
philosphically, the discrete approach did ease the transition away from 
needing an ether to support propogation of electromagnetic waves: light 
"baseball" particles can be more easily pictures traveling even in a vacuum.

5. The early EInstein was motivated by Mach but switched philosphical 
allegiences to Boltzmann.

6. Galison now turns to Adler, who is going to stick to a more Machian 
approach. Adler assasinated Austrian minister-president. Einstein came 
to his defense. This also paints a somewhat different portrait of 
Einstein, as more than a dogmatic pacifist. he felt strongly enough 
about politics (and German politics) to not appreciate Adler. Victor  
Adler, father and psychiatraist, tried to get him off based on mental 

7. While imprisoned, Adler continued thinking about physics. some work 
on the basis of Foucault's pendulum. he worried about relativity of 
rotations (the Soviet physicist Fock and collegueas did good work on 
this late ron). Adler  tried to "redo Mach". Einstein responded in an 
extensive set of communications with Adler.  Einstein publicly reported 
these discussions in support of Adler while  in prison.

8. Galison reviews material basis for Adler's views on time much like 
Einstein's Clocks. Adler cooked up an interesting challenge which 
nevertheless Einstein refuted. einstein used this example of  adler 's 
in arguments against his other opponents. In other words, Adler was 
serious enough in his study of physics to occupy Einstein.

9. Lenin and Trotsky offered Adler a position after his release from 
jail. Adler joined second international, but split to form the "second 
and a half" international.

10. Galison argues against reductionist historical analysis, but claims 
all this stuff, politics, physics, epistemology, are all daily and 
intimately related.  how did assassination fit in with his story? 
Galison in discussion after his lecture gets more into it. but it is a 
weak point in Galison's whole talk.

11. Galison describes how Adler  did physics in prison, guards were 
sympathetic to his cause and got him books, writing materials, 
communications. Adler  liked the working environment. fits w/ einstein's 
thought experiment approach. reminded me of Birdman of Alcatraz.

12. EInstein said dont extrapolate from physics to politics. even tho 
his clock work was very distributed and "democratic" (no absolute clock).

13. According to Galison, Adler saw his interventions in politics, 
physics, and epistemology as deeply connected. Adler  believed a theory 
of knowledge needed physics and class struggle needed reference to 
scientific tools of the age.

14. Galison: Einstein and Adler started close but their lives diverged.

i'd be curious to hear any other reviews of this lecture, particularly 
on the political aspects only touched on by Galison.

les schaffer

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