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June 23, 2015

The second day of Convergence came to a close with a look at “The Genesis and Renaissance of General Relativity” and how its process mirrors the science of today.

On the centenary of the publication of Einstein’s theory of general relativity, Jürgen Renn, Director of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, delivered a public lecture that placed the luminary’s achievement in its proper historical context – one that clashes with the popular mythology.

“Einstein was not the lonely genius he is often portrayed to be,” said Renn. “Einstein had his collaborators, his frustrations with his colleagues, and his competitors.”

Renn laid out the case that Einstein’s theory of general relativity emerged from a transformation of the knowledge that been accumulating in various branches of classical physics – beginning with an idea of a generalized theory of relativity in 1907 (while Einstein was still a patent clerk at a Swiss patent office in Bern) on through his famous presentation of the formula on November 25, 1915.

It was a process of tinkering, of looking at things in new lights, of consolidating – in other words, a process not unlike the scientific method of today.

Early on, Einstein came up with the Equivalence Principle, noting the equivalence of gravitational and inertial mass under certain conditions. By 1913, he was very close to the final theory on mathematical grounds, but was not yet satisfied with it from a physical perspective.

Throughout the lecture, Renn was careful not to diminish Einstein’s genius – he noted with a laugh that he and his team “actually worked longer than Einstein did on his original theory in reconstructing it” – but noted the oft-forgotten contributions of his collaborators along the way.

Key among those contributors was Hungarian mathematician Marcel Grossmann, a classmate of Einstein’s with a better track record of attending lectures, who lent his notes to his friend, enabling him to graduate. In Einstein’s notebooks delineating the development of general relativity, Renn noted that Grossmann’s name always popped up “in the crucial moments.”

And then there was Michele Besso, a colleague at the patent office who Renn described as “Einstein’s most important interlocutor.” Einstein and Besso exchanged constant correspondence, including many during Einstein’s work on general relativity, until they both died in 1955.

When asked during a post-lecture Q&A what problems he thought Einstein would be grappling with if he were still alive today, Renn said, “I think he would’ve been very happy in participating in this conference and seeing what marvellous results general relativity has given us.”

Tracing Einstein’s intellectual odyssey, drawing out the intersections of ideas, and highlighting the importance of collaborators in one of history’s signature breakthroughs seemed a fitting end to the second day of Convergence.

– Mike Brown

“Einstein was not the lonely genius he is often portrayed to be.”

– Jürgen Renn

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