Mathew Stanley, Einstein’s War: How Relativity Triumphed Amid the Vicious Nationalism of World War I (2019) is the 20th century world story of two wars. First, World War I was the war over control of Europe. Second, the war between Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton was the war over the explanation of truth about the universe. In the second war, British scientist Quaker Arthur Eddington won the war for German Jewish Albert Einstein by convincing the world that Einstein’s theory of general relativity is real and more accurately describes reality than that of Isaac Newton. The two wars were simultaneous and entangled. The stakes for humanity were high in both wars. We made our way through both wars. Britain won over Germany. Einstein’s relativity was true and was more true than that of Newton.
Einstein proposed the theory of general relativity, which disrupted then current, nearly universal thinking. Eddington listened carefully and concluded that Einstein was correct. Then, Eddington took practical steps in order to confirm or falsify Einstein’s relativity in an expedition to read the effect of a solar eclipse. Eddington concluded that the eclipse observation confirmed Einstein’s relativity.
General relativity explained the movement of galaxies, predicted black holes, concluded that time and space were warped, suggested that gravity bent light, and matter and energy were connected. Newtonian physics could not explain these parts of reality. These new ideas disturbed basic conceptions of the universe and everyday experience.
The book’s title communicates excessive aggression. A more accurate title is “Einstein’s Relativity: The Confirmation of Relativity During World War I.” The endnotes are accurate, but the format of the endnotes adds an element that is unnecessarily distracting. This is a good story, well told.
Light has weight and is distorted by gravity. Relativity is a better explanation of reality than the longstanding and reasonably good preceding theory of Newton. There was much pain and turmoil in both wars, but the confirmation of relativity was the goal and win for us all.
This book can be viewed by Quakers to appear as a Quaker vindication story. Einstein is a good guy who thought right. Eddington is a good guy who did right. But, the story is better seen as a universal human story of people transcending their nationalisms and painful war experiences to understand and promote universal truth. In this case, that truth is the theory of general relativity. It remains an essential foundation of our human understanding of the universe.
This book can also be read as a cautionary tale for Quakers who rely heavily on experience (in addition to tradition and reason) for discernment of truth in reality and practice in daily life. Reliance on our common sense is a tricky business and can be easily distorted. What appears on the surface often does not weather well over time and requires constant discernment in worship and reflection. Slavery, vegetarianism, human rights, gender roles, conscientious objection, religious tolerance are some of the subjects needing constant discernment.
- How do Quakers test common sense experience for truth?
- How do Quakers explain the elements of authority to Quaker youth?
- How do Quakers manage to separate ourselves from nationalisms in seeing and practicing truth in our lives?
Mathew Stanley, Einstein’s War: How Relativity Triumphed Amid the Vicious Nationalism of World War I (2019)