Shortly after the confirmation of his theory of general relativity in 1919, Albert Einstein was transformed into a media star of Weimar Germany. The overwhelming public response to the theory of relativity was not always positive; numerous accounts published during the 1920s claimed to refute his new theory. Einstein’s opponents were not limited to physicists and philosophers. Engineers, doctors, businessmen, and writers also raised strong objections to one of the most important scientific theories of the twentieth century. What were the motives of Einstein’s opponents? On what basis was his theory of relativity attacked so vociferously? A recently accomplished project at the institute has investigated these questions.
Although they had previously played no role in German academic life, during the 1920s scores of self-proclaimed researchers alleged to have proved the theory of relativity to be scientifically incorrect. Because the arguments set out in hundreds of ensuing publications frequently rested on fundamental misunderstandings of Einstein’s new theory, their accounts have largely been ignored by traditional history of science. Instead, attention has focused on the criticisms of Einstein’s work put forward by physicists who clung to classical physics, and philosophers who saw central elements of their ways of understanding the world threatened by Einstein’s fundamental restructuring of the basic principles of physics. Moreover, “scientific” arguments leveled against the theory of relativity were separated from “unscientific” accounts, many of which were political attacks on the person of Albert Einstein, a German Jew and outspoken defender of Germany’s post-WWI democracy.
A fresh perspective emerges when popular criticism of the theory of relativity is investigated beyond the frame of physical or philosophical plausibility. By exploring criticisms of Einstein’s work from the perspective of a history of knowledge broadly conceived to investigate bodies of knowledge beyond scientific disciplines, we are in a better position not only to understand the various arguments advanced by Einstein’s opponents, but also the bodies of knowledge that provided the basis for these arguments and the social contexts in which their various objections arose.
This new scholarly approach to Einstein’s opponents reveals that criticism of the theory of relativity outside of academic circles began much earlier than the 1920s. The roots of this opposition can be traced back to the nineteenth century, when popularization of the natural sciences led many citizens to devote their leisure to the pursuit of scientific understanding. This leisure-time study of science led some individuals to create universal theories of their own; in some cases these simple, often mechanical explanations of the world enabled them to assemble a cadre of adherents drawn from a shared popular-scientific milieu.
One such self-proclaimed researcher and Einstein opponent is Arthur Patschke (1865–1934). Employed by Siemens Schuckert, a German electrical engineering company, Patschke saw himself as more than a design engineer of steam engines. Patschke was convinced that all phenomena—from the movement of the heavens to human thought itself—could be traced to the collisions of tiny ether particles. On this mechanical basis, Patschke went on to develop a scientific worldview in which ether attained a quasi-religious status as the key to the mysteries of the world.
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