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With general relativity we again find ourselves with an Einstein by no means isolated from the key work in physics being pursued in his surroundings. Jurgen Renn, like Darrigol, is one of the new generations of Einstein scholars who have worked hard to reconstruct the detailed technical problematic that Einstein faced.


This has meant dismantling a mytho-historical account of Einstein's hunt for a general theory--disassembling the too-easy story that depicted Einstein as a solo worker criticizing his special relativity, seizing the equivalence principle, and, exploiting the new mathematics, marching triumphantly into the promised land of his tensor theory of gravity. Undoing and replacing this failed view has been the task of some of our best historians of physics these last years.
 

 

It has meant, for example, following the detailed annotations of the mathematician David Hilbert's copy of Einstein's paper--which showed quite clearly that Hilbert made a key step in his own mathematical arguments for the field equations only after seeing Einstein's physically grounded ones. Elsewhere Renn and his collaborators have taken apart, notation by notation, Einstein's ruminations in his 1912-1913 "Zurich Notebook." Einstein's private meditations come alive in the notebook, revealing his reasoning in the years before his final formulation of his theory of gravity--and showing how deeply his gravitational work was embedded in the science of his time. Here, Renn intriguingly suggests that the internal dynamics of Einstein's work on gravity followed its own complex path, which was neither one of frantic Kuhnian crisis nor one of positivistic incremental continuity. Instead, Renn finds periods of tinkering (fall 1912) and systematic searching for a new theory (1912-early 1913) giving way to a period of consolidation (1913-mid 1915) and eventually to one of physical reinterpretation of the earlier results (mid 1915 to publication in November 1915). Throughout, Einstein was well aware of contemporaries' work that bordered on his--the Einsteinian contribution was one of disruptive and novel synthesis, not creation ex nihilo. It is all too evident that neither these papers nor any collection of papers that can be written today will finish with Einstein's works. That will not happen, any more than we will finish with the paintings of the Expressionists or the plays of Shakespeare. But what we can expect--in my view, happily--is that this current generation of scholarship will locate Einstein in a technical and a cultural world that will shed light on the historically specific nature of both.

 

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