The Newtonian Puzzle

7. A number of public service employees ate lunch at a café around the corner from the Patent Office. It was a small, crowded space accommodating six square tables inside and eight round tables outside, which could only be used when the weather was good. The bratwurst was very popular.

The Bern Patent Office director, Dr. Haller, often took his employees to the café, though it was clear that he was not nearly as popular as the bratwurst. Some of the employees found him intimidating. He was not only their boss, but an engineer with a national reputation. He was also a large man with a large personality and was not bashful about expressing his opinion. Even those employees who were not intimidated by him found it awkward to eat lunch with the director.

As a result, Dr. Haller usually ate at a table with Einstein and Besso. They had both been at the Patent Office for several years now and felt neither intimidated nor awkward eating with him. They did a professional job as technical experts and did not need Haller’s oversight or approval of their work. They were not looking for a promotion. In fact, while they liked and respected Dr. Haller, they wanted nothing from him, which was why they felt no discomfort eating in his company.

Everyone sat outside except Einstein, Besso and Haller, who were together at one of the inside tables. But Albert’s thoughts were far away, specifically on the material he was reading at home before coming into work. Now that he was no longer looking at Maxwell's proof or trying to dissect it line by line, he was thinking more broadly. He was considering the implications of Maxwell's research, together with the other bits and pieces of research being presented throughout the scientific community.

It was not possible, in Albert's mind, that taken as a whole, this accumulation of evidence pointed nowhere. He did not believe the experimental evidence that was inconsistent with classical mechanics was a bunch of isolated cases. If Maxwell was right, if Lorentz was right, and if Einstein himself was right, there had to be more to it. There had to be an explanation beyond mere corrections at the margin. There had to be something shaky in the foundation, and that meant problems with the work of the great Isaac Newton.

As Albert smiled vaguely at this thought, he realized that his two table mates were staring at him, as if expecting an answer to a question he had not heard.

Albert stared blankly at the two men. Haller prompted him.

"I was wondering if you had any ideas about how this had happened," he said.

Having completely tuned out to their conversation, Albert had no idea what he was supposed to have an idea about.

Besso, who recognized the look on his friend’s face, tried to offer some assistance.

"Dr. Haller was just saying that he has been reading about Germany and how it suddenly seems to have become the leading technological state in all of Europe."

Albert shrugged, and Besso picked up the conversation with Haller, leaving Albert to drift off again into thoughts of Sir Isaac Newton’s shaky foundation.

It was a sensitive subject. Newton's theories, including his laws of motion and universal gravitation and his development of calculus had served as the basis for scientific inquiry for over two hundred years. The theories he espoused – the ones that could be proven, that is – had been tested through rigorous experimentation by the leading scientists of Newton's day and subsequent eras. They had been proven over and over again so definitively that they had become the standard in numerous fields.

Those that could not be proven also became the standard because they made sense and there was no contradictory evidence. They became the foundation for further scientific inquiry as indubitably as the ones that could be proven. Newton had influenced the world of science so profoundly that he was generally acknowledged as the greatest scientist of the millennium, and perhaps in all of history.

In the scientific world, Isaac Newton was the ultimate authority. It was difficult for any scientist, even one with as questioning a nature as Albert Einstein, to challenge Newton’s laws.

Albert realized that his two lunch partners were staring at him again.

“Good bratwurst,” he offered, apropos of nothing.

“Yes, it is,” agreed Haller, sounding slightly confused.

"I can tell you what I think," Besso interjected. "I was in Berlin last year, and I've never seen anything like it. The factories are going non-stop, and there’s a lot of energy. I've been to Berlin before, but I've never seen it like this."

“Tell me,” Haller replied. “Did you see the factories belching smoke into the air? It was depressing to see that beautiful city being destroyed like that.”

“That is the modern world,” Besso contended. And the conversation proceeded from there.

Again, without Einstein, whose attention had wandered to a very important piece of the Newtonian puzzle: the addition of velocities.

To demonstrate the addition of velocities concept, Newton had used the example of a sailor walking on a moving ship. The velocity of the sailor could be determined by adding his walking velocity to the velocity of the ship. It was standard physics; applied to the world on a daily basis, it worked perfectly.

Now it was necessary to apply this concept to a different world. Albert had been reviewing an important part of this world, suggested by Hendrik Lorentz, whose work on electrons had yielded fascinating results. Lorentz said that the distance between electrons in atoms was reduced during movement, due to electromagnetism. Of course, this reduction of the space between electrons was so minuscule as to be indistinguishable in everyday life. But at the microscopic level, where electromagnetism was reducing the space between electrons, there had to be a simultaneous contraction of molecules. It was inevitable. And if an object's molecules contracted, there had to be an infinitesimal reduction in the size of a moving object.

Albert had reviewed this concept that morning and knew Lorentz had made an important discovery. Unfortunately, Lorentz was still trying to fit this discovery into the context of a world that contained the ether, through which it was believed electromagnetic waves traveled. Like many scientists, Lorentz wanted to preserve the status quo, because it had worked so well for so long and so much work was based on it.

The assumptions of classical physics formed the foundation for contemporary physics, and it was difficult for any scientist simply to dismiss them. It was understandable that Lorentz would try to preserve the status quo. However, Einstein felt it was a misguided effort. Thanks to the results of the Michaelson-Morley experiment, he was convinced that the ether did not exist and he was not going to waste any more time pretending that it did.

He was much more interested in the effect Lorentz' discovery had on the addition of velocities. If Lorentz' equations were accurate, and the length of an object could be shortened minutely at very great speeds, the length of the moving ship in Newton's example would be altered as its speed – theoretically – approached the speed of light. Due to the contraction of molecules as the ship moved, the ship would literally become shorter.


The result of this remarkable discovery was a demolition of the addition of velocity concept. That concept was based on consistent lengths, and if Newton's sailor was walking on a shorter ship, then its length was not consistent. Therefore, the addition of velocities did not apply.

This discovery threw an important part of Newton's mechanics into doubt.

Einstein continued to pursue the point in his mind. He supposed that the addition of velocities was now dead. And he had supposed for some time that the ether was dead.

But he also knew in his heart that there had to be something to replace them. There had to be a unifying element that allowed everything to come together. Einstein thought about one of the other scientists who had noticed that Newton's mechanics were fraying at the edges. Just a few years earlier, at the ETH in Zurich, Besso had given Albert a book by Ernst Mach called Science of Mathematics. In it, Mach expressed doubt about some of Newton's most basic concepts, especially his references to "absolute space" and "absolute time". He was skeptical about Newton’s laws of mechanics, maintaining that Newton's theories could, and should, be challenged. Albert was at the ETH when he was first introduced to Mach’s ideas, but now, several years later, he remembered clearly the empowering sensation he experienced at the idea of standing up to the great Isaac Newton.

Mach suggested that the Newtonian universe needed to accommodate not only a deeper understanding of the vast regions of space and the tiny world of the atom, but also a universe where objects moved at the speed of light. There were more anomalies all the time. Not only did the orbit of the planet Mercury not correspond to the predictions of a Newtonian universe, but the discovery of a negatively-charged electron was problematic, to say the least, for the mechanics of the pre-atomic world. In addition, studies by Marie Curie and Antoine Becqueral had shown that uranium was giving off streams of radiation and matter, for which there was no explanation.

Einstein agreed with Mach that all of these discoveries and inconsistencies meant that it was time to challenge the Newtonian paradigm. He did not think these modern revelations needed to conform to the established beliefs of Newton any more than he thought Lorentz should try to explain his discoveries within the concept of the nebulous ether. If one eliminated all the possible ways something could fit into established beliefs, and it still did not conform, then it was time to consider establishing new beliefs, a new foundation, and a different paradigm.

Given Einstein's anti-authoritarian temperament, and his willingness to accept change in the name of progress and logic, he had no fear of entering such a brave new world.

At the lunch table in Bern, Albert became aware that his two fellow Patent Office employees were still talking about Germany, and Haller was addressing him directly.

“Are you concerned about the pace of change, Herr Einstein?” Haller asked. “You are quiet today, my friend, but you must have feelings on the matter.”

Albert laid down his eating utensils.

"Because I was born there, you mean?" he said dismissively. "That was a very long time ago. I'm a Swiss citizen now, so I'm probably not the right person to ask."

Undeterred by Albert's tone, Haller persisted.

"Yes, but you must have an opinion. It's kind of a social revolution, really, if you look at what Germany was like before. They have natural resources, of course, but that does not explain this level of productivity. There must be something in the German spirit that allows them to be more efficient, don't you think? I mean, compared to Italy, for example, where they have no idea what the word 'efficiency' means."

Einstein gritted his teeth at this remark.

"And you think the Germans do?" he asked, pointedly.

Surprised that Einstein would speak with such conviction after ignoring them for so long, Haller responded with a simple, "Why, yes, I do."

"Well, then, I suggest you don't know any more about Italy than you know about Germany."

Haller started to respond, but Einstein cut him off.

"If you really want to know what I think, let me tell you," he said. "Your friends, the Germans, may be more productive than the Italians, or the Swiss for that matter. But this productivity is not due to any great knowledge or skill. If they are more productive, it is only because they are willing to work harder.”

Quite animated now, Albert continued.

“But you should realize there is no 'spirit' to what the Germans do or how they do it. They have no imagination and are incapable of creative thought. Whatever box you put them in, they'll stay there and work. In that respect, you could say that the workers are more like machines than people. That's why they're so productive. Sure, they have technology, and they can be efficient, but this efficiency is at the cost of imagination, creativity and independence.”

He finished his comments as he wiped his mouth and stood up to leave.

“There may great progress in Germany these days, as you say, but it's a kind of progress I can live without."

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