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How Hume and Mach Helped Einstein Find Special Relativity

Norton, John D. (2010) How Hume and Mach Helped Einstein Find Special Relativity. In: Discourse on a New Method: Reinvigorating the Marriage of History and Philosophy of Science. Open Court, Chicago and La Salle, IL, 359 - 386. ISBN 9780812696622

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Abstract

In recounting his discovery of special relativity, Einstein recalled a debt to the philosophical writings of Hume and Mach. I review the path Einstein took to special relativity and urge that, at a critical juncture, he was aided decisively not by any specific doctrine of space and time, but by a general account of concepts that Einstein found in Hume and Mach’s writings. That account required that concepts, used to represent the physical, must be properly grounded in experience. In so far as they extended beyond that grounding, they were fictional and to be abjured (Mach) or at best tolerated (Hume). Einstein drew a different moral. These fictional concepts revealed an arbitrariness in our physical theorizing and may still be introduced through freely chosen definitions, as long as these definitions do not commit us to false presumptions. After years of failed efforts to conform electrodynamics to the principle of relativity and with his frustration mounting, Einstein applied this account to the concept of simultaneity. The resulting definition of simultaneity provided the reconceptualization that solved the problem in electrodynamics and led directly to the special theory of relativity.


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Details

Item Type: Book Section
Status: Published
Creators/Authors:
CreatorsEmailPitt UsernameORCID
Norton, John D.jdnorton@pitt.eduJDNORTON
Centers: University Centers > Center for Philosophy of Science
Date: 2010
Date Type: Publication
Access Restriction: No restriction; Release the ETD for access worldwide immediately.
Publisher: Open Court
Place of Publication: Chicago and La Salle, IL
Page Range: 359 - 386
Institution: University of Pittsburgh
Schools and Programs: Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences > History and Philosophy of Science
Refereed: Yes
ISBN: 9780812696622
Title of Book: Discourse on a New Method: Reinvigorating the Marriage of History and Philosophy of Science
Editors:
EditorsEmailPitt UsernameORCID
Domski, MaryUNSPECIFIEDUNSPECIFIEDUNSPECIFIED
Dickson, MichaelUNSPECIFIEDUNSPECIFIEDUNSPECIFIED
Date Deposited: 12 Jul 2012 14:09
Last Modified: 25 Aug 2017 05:07
URI: http://d-scholarship.pitt.edu/id/eprint/12550

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