Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Dictating Physics

It followed from the special theory of relativity that mass and energy are both but different manifestations of the same thing — a somewhat unfamiliar conception for the average mind.

Albert Einstein

Soviet science is the standard-bearer for most modern and progressive ideas of contemporary natural science...the development of science can only be secured by total renunciation of Einstien's conception without compromise or half measure'

I.V. Kuznetzov - Soviet theoretician

Albert Einstein’s General relativity has developed into an essential tool in modern astrophysics, yet it was threatened in its infancy by the arrival of new ideologies which promised a great leap into a heroic future; a future based on the creation of a perfect society and a new conception of man. Both Nazism and Communism felt ill at ease with the new physics; the Nazis because it was tainted by Jewishness, the Marxists because it seemed to threaten their materialist dogma. Accordingly it was suppressed until more practical considerations came into play.

During the 1930s the Nazi party began a campaign to systematically turn traditional subjects into expressions of their political ideology. The attempt to do this in Physics was led by Philipp Lenard, an elder statesmen of German science, who had worked with Heinrich Hertz, the discoverer of radio waves, and been awarded the Nobel prize in 1905 for experiments on cathode rays. Lenard was very sceptical of theory and had a tendency to emphasise careful and precise experimentation. He also had an intense hatred of the British, having clashed with the physicist J. J. Thompson for allegedly stealing his work. After the First World War his German nationalism crossed over into anti-Semitism and he became outraged when Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity was confirmed in 1919. Einstein represented all he despised, a pacifist, a Jew, a supporter of Weimar and a theoretical physicist; to put the icing on the cake, the scientists that confirmed Relativity were a British team under Arthur Eddington. Lenard proclaimed the whole thing as a ‘Jewish fraud’ and having led a backlash against it, began to gravitate towards the Nazi party, eventually joining in 1937.

Lenard was an enthusiastic contributor to the regime and celebrated the removal of Jewish professors. He then published a four volume book on physics which was supposed to be the foundation for a new racially based ‘Aryan Physics’ that would eliminate Jewish relativity altogether. Due to his age, the task of constructing a Nazi physics was passed over to his friend Johannes Stark, another experimentalist who had discovered the splitting of spectral lines in an electric field. Stark was given the resources to launch a campaign to change the funding of science in order to cut off the proponents of Quantum mechanics and relativity. Problems immediately became apparent. There was not much substance to Nazi physics once all the anti-Semitic diatribes and political rants were taken out. Other scientists decided Relativity and Quantum mechanics were useful after all and argued that they embodied Nordic concepts and rejected ‘Jewish’ materialism.

The most impressive achievement of Nazi physics was to launch a campaign against Werner Heisenberg, one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century, and block his appointment to the chair of theoretical physics at Munich. Stark attacked Heisenburg as a follower of the hated Einstien, this despite the fact Einstien had rejected Quantum physics. Heisenburg, a conservative nationalist drafted a response petition signed by 75 leading scientists, which put a stop to further public attacks. Behind the scenes, Stark called on Reinhard Heydrich’s SS to assist, while Heisenburg sent his mother to intercede with Himmler’s mother.

Despite Heisenburg’s name being cleared, he failed to get the Munich post, which was given to Wilhelm Muller. Muller wasn’t even a physicist and was principally recommended because he had published a book called ‘Jews and Science’ which argued that Relativity was a Jewish con-trick. As a result the standard of scientific teaching in Germany declined dramatically, although scientific research flourished in the private sector and amongst the scientific research institutes which lay outside the universities. As the war drew nearer, Heisenburg was able to show his trump card, claiming that theoretical physics was necessary for the development of military technology. Stark was accordingly removed and scientific funding was expanded dramatically, with the proviso that the research had to be shown to have the remotest possible relevance to the war effort.

General Relativity has a similarly chequered history amoungst the Communists. During the pre-Stalin era, Marxist philosophers had disagreed over the problem of defining dialectical materialism in relation to ongoing discoveries in science. This controversy produced a range of Marxist attitudes toward the theory of relativity, ranging from complete acceptance to total rejection. During the Stalin era conflicting forces in Marxist thinking were eliminated, and complete unity was established and firmly guarded by the state. Marxist theorists declared war on “idealistic” principles built into Einstein’s scientific work, which was seen as anti-materialist and a challenge to Marxist-Leninist materialist epistemology.

Stalin himself held that General Relativity was nothing but ‘bourgeois mystification’, treating any support for the theory as conniving at the overthrow of the Soviet order. When Beria pleaded after the Second World War that soviet physicists needed Einstein’s equations to build a nuclear weapon, Stalin eventually relented saying that ‘Leave them in peace, we can always shoot them later’. That was as close as you got to a concession from Koba the Dead

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