relativity - Three and a Half Principles The Origins of...

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Unformatted text preview: Three and a Half Principles: The Origins of Modern Relativity Theory Daniel Kennefick June 9, 2011 1 Introduction In 1900 the field theory of electromagnetism, which owes it origins primarily to the work of James Clerk Maxwell, had been under rapid development for two decades. In the 1880s a number of British physicists, beginning with Oliver Heaviside, had developed Maxwell’s work into a successful body of theory which was able to explain a number of important features of electrodynamics. During the 1890s this new theory encountered some difficulties which, as Jed Buchwald (1985) has shown, were connected with the earlier theory’s inattention to the physical nature of the sources of the field, the moving charges themselves. This directed attention towards problem of microphysics and the nature of the elec- tron and towards a theory of electromagnetism which focused on the reality of charged particles as agents of the field. This was accompanied by a geographical shift away from Britain, whose leading figures came to play a less important role in the development of the theory, to the continent, in particular to Holland and the German speaking areas of Europe. The new continental theory had important successes, which inspired a hope that was expressed in the term electromagnetic world-view, that all physical phenomena would be expressible in terms of the electromagnetic field. In spite of major achievements by Hertz, Lorentz and others, the new theory still found itself troubled by a number of issues, several of which are now seen to have had a common origin in the subject of relativity theory, and how the new electro- magnetic theory was to be reconciled with it. The chief credit for the work on relativity which resolved these problems is usually accorded to Albert Einstein, and the first half of this article will focus primarily on the particular line of thinking which led him to the discovery of what is now called special relativity theory. The contributions of others, particularly Lorentz and Henri Poincar´ e, will not be neglected, but the adoption of a schema based on the structure of Einstein’s theory, while justified by his enormous influence on subsequent re- search, will inevitably force their contributions into a framework which was not 1 of their making, and therefore tends to distort what they considered to be the meaning of their work. In the years after 1905, the success of special relativity created a new problem of its own. The old theory of gravity was now seen to be in conflict with the new theory of relativity. It is to Einstein that we owe the resolution of this problem. Although others, such as Max Abraham and Gunnar Nordstrom, also addressed it, their work did not influence Einstein and was made irrelevant by the success of Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Therefore it is with less apology that the second half of this paper will focus on Einstein’s path to general relativity, with little discussion of alternative efforts to develop a relativistic theory of...
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This note was uploaded on 12/01/2011 for the course PHYS 5523 taught by Professor Kennefick during the Fall '11 term at Arkansas.

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relativity - Three and a Half Principles The Origins of...

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