Einstein’s Big Break: The Archaeology of a Scientific Revolution


    Nineteenth century physics was a proud discipline. By 1900, physicists had produced a compelling and unified theoretical edifice, in which all physical phenomena were taken to be the fully determined effects of interactions between fundamental particles. Although technological improvements permitted the detection of the atom, and then the electron, by the end of the century, the reigning mechanical view could assimilate these discoveries without too much trouble. There are two fundamental physical categories for the mechanical view: matter and force. Combining particles and central forces (e.g. gravity, electricity, and magnetism) in a baroque assemblage of equations and natural philosophy, classical physicists could describe their whole world according to the same laws. Indeed, this universality was Sir Isaac Newton’s fundamental insight and the philosophical meaning of the parable in which he realizes that the same attractive force is responsible for both the fall of the apple and the elliptical orbit of the Moon. This coherent explanation for all phenomena is what gives his Principia such lasting power. It lays out an ironclad system of cause and effect, which governs the force-mediated interactions of bits of matter, on the inert stage of an absolute space and proceeding according to an independently flowing, absolute time.

    Classical physics, then, achieved its scientific raison d’être in the pursuit of the natural laws responsible for these interactions. It aspired to a sort of divine omnipotence, since tabulating the simultaneous positions and momenta of all matter would be theoretically sufficient to know the world’s past and future in their entireties. As the nineteenth century drew to a close, physicists perceived this absolute knowledge to be a more real possibility than ever before, even if the necessary measurement remained a practical impossibility. During the preceding one hundred years, many more phenomena, once incompatible with the mechanical view, were assimilated into its logic. In 1801, Thomas Young conclusively demonstrated that light is not a ray of corpuscles but a wave, apparently settling a debate that began in the 1600s between Newton and Christiaan Huygens. But this presented physics with a problem: If light is a wave, what is doing the waving? Just as sound waves require a medium, usually air, for their propagation, light waves required an elastic medium if they were to both traverse the vacuum of space and retain consistency with the mechanical view.

    To fill this void, physicists turned to the luminiferous ether, a substance that was supposed to fill the universe and transmit light waves. This was certainly not the first suggestion than an ethereal substance pervades all space, but the convincing evidence that light is a wave stemming from Young’s diffraction experiments made its presence a theoretical necessity. As increasingly sensitive equipment became available, physicists elaborated an ever more complete wave theory of light. This movement reached its apex in 1864 with James Clerk Maxwell’s dynamical theory of the electric field, which showed electricity, magnetism, and light to be manifestations of the same fundamental phenomenon and transmitted by one and the same ether. Undoubtedly the pinnacle of classical physics, Maxwell’s system of four equations describing the electromagnetic field united the most resistant phenomena and brought them firmly in the mechanical fold. By the end of the century, some physicists declared that all that remained for the discipline was to refine measurements and explain a few stubborn phenomena.

    Perhaps the two most obstinate problems at the turn of the twentieth century were related to blackbody radiation and the failure to detect the luminiferous ether. But even these were eventually taken care of. Max Planck and Hendrick Antoon Lorentz, two of the most prominent German physicists of their day, published explanations that seemed to work, even though they were confusing. And though their equations remain in today’s physics contemporary physics textbooks, their logical justifications were thoroughly classical. In retrospect, their theories’ oddities might seem to be omens of an impending theoretical crisis, but there is no evidence of any panic on the part of their contemporaries.

    Radical change and the end of classical physics were, however, only a few years away. In 1905, an unknown clerk at the patent office in the Swiss city of Bern, reading and writing in his spare time, published a set of four papers that touched on nearly every area of active physics research. During this so-called annus mirabilis, Albert Einstein introduced new approaches to the calculation of molecular dimensions and the mathematical description of Brownian motion. But what made 1905 a genuine revolutionary moment were his radical theories of space, time, and light. Although they presented no new experimental results, “On a Heuristic Point of View About the Generation and Conversion of Light” and “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies” represent a fundamental break with the logic of classical physics, even as they merely read previous theories.

    These two papers contained several revolutionary theories. The first suggested that treating light as composed of discrete energy quanta rather than continuous waves made previously insoluble problems – the energy distribution of blackbody radiation, the photoelectric effect, and the ionization of gases – appear to be simple. The second did what decades of “failed” experiments could not: Force physics to abandon Newton’s absolute space and time, and along with it any reliance on the luminiferous ether. Starting from two clearly defined postulates and a new form of scientific rigor, Einstein produced a theory of relativity, in which space and time are tied to a given observer by pulses of light. Physics was no longer a means to divine omniscience, but a system of thought grounded on a set of irreducible conventions. In a phrase, Einstein showed physicists what their knowledge is worth.

    Einstein’s annus mirabilis is a quintessential scientific revolution. Although many mathematical relationships seem to have survived this scientific break, they formed radical new theories as their classical objects were replaced with modern ones. On the strength of fresh logic, these old equations were transformed to fit new theories. Drawn to its concept of the paradigm shift, many philosophers of science turn to Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions to understand the implications of this historical rupture. Although Kuhn’s text does a wonderful job of explaining how a science shifts from one period of normal scientific practice to another, this thesis argues that it is insufficient to understand the full epistemological implications of a scientific revolution. Writing in the 1950s, Kuhn had only one developed epistemology to which he could turn: analytic philosophy’s empiricist conception of knowledge as true justified belief. This philosophy seeks to test the correspondence between scientific models and the real world, accessed through neutral experience, as a guarantee of its truth.

    For Kuhn, whose philosophical project is at root historical, analytic philosophy’s timeless test of truth does not work. In its place, this thesis proposes we turn to the ideas of Louis Althusser (1918-1990) and Michel Foucault (1926-1984). By viewing knowledge as the result of a historically determinate process of production, carrying on according to a given mode and with certain means, Althusser’s epistemology enables us to understand the radical nature of Einstein’s annus mirabilis papers. In the following pages, I aim to explain how these papers constructed a new problematic for modern physics, one that recognizes the fundamental power of convention, imagination, and human thought. For Althusser, the problematic is a historically specific, epistemological structure peculiar to a given science; the latter “can only pose problems on the terrain and within the horizon of… its problematic, which constitutes [the science’s] absolute and definite condition of possibility.” The problematic also defines the way in which a science produces the objects of its knowledge, thereby setting limits on what is visible to the science and establishing its self-avowed relation to the real things in the world. Thus, the philosopher seeking to understand the epistemological foundations of a science should analyze its problematic. This thesis argues that such a generalized Althusserian epistemology works well alongside Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolutions, and attempts to elaborate a coherent philosophy of science from this intersection.

    Although Kuhn’s study is historical, it lacks a fully theorized methodology for constructing a history. He rails against the traditional approach to chronicling the history of science, which works retrospectively and views “out-of-date theories… [as] in principle unscientific because they have been discarded…. Rather than seeking the permanent contributions of an older science to our present vantage, [he] attempt[s] to display the historical integrity of that science in its own time.” In doing this, he works to construct periods of normal science, punctuated by scientific revolutions. However, this strategy requires him to track continuous lines of thought through decades, and once a science has settled into a stable paradigm, it’s treated rather monolithically until the next revolution comes along.

    Althusser’s epistemology also requires a specialized historical methodology, one that privileges ruptures and discontinuity. But he does not articulate such an approach in any depth. Rather, he gestures to the work of his student, Foucault, as examples of the sorts of historiographies his epistemology requires. This thesis works to theorize the relationship between Althusser’s epistemology and Foucault’s method of archaeology, a connection that receives relatively little notice from either side. In archaeology’s pure analysis of discourse, we find the way of accruing material on which to deploy Althusser’s epistemology. And finally in Althusser’s philosophy, we find the epistemological structures that explain why archaeology functions the way it does.

    Working with statements, archeology seeks to assemble an archive. Dispersions are intrinsic to this type of assemblage, and for Foucault, they are not to be covered over as traditional histories do with such continuities as cause and effect. This is an aspiration that would help strengthen Kuhn’s philosophy, which, as we have said, has a tendency to suture historical ruptures beyond revolutions. By bringing these two discursive fields into conversation, this thesis proposes for Kuhn a more fully theorized historical strategy. Moreover, this exchange should introduce distinctions between the Foucauldian discontinuity and the Althusserian break, and in doing so explain why every scientific revolution does not require the production of a fundamentally new problematic.

    As archaeology is the appropriate historical method for both Althusser and Kuhn’s philosophies, it is the one attempted here. In assembling archives of classical and Einsteinian physics, I aim to mobilize these discourses for the reader. In addition, I hope to disperse the tightly wound standard annus mirabilis narrative, which takes quantum and relativity physics as strokes of personal genius on Einstein’s part. In our approach, Einstein’s radical vision is not the result of heroic sightings of objects others had missed. Instead, the epistemological break he initiates emerges from a historically determinate conjuncture of existing physical theory, technical prowess, and philosophical criticism. Further, the new objects visible after his 1905 critiques are not properly his, but rather belong to the new problematic itself, which defines the limits of the visible with its internal structure.

    As the paradigm example of the scientific revolution, much ink has been spilled on Einstein’s annus mirabilis. This thesis was hardly composed in isolation. I am particularly indebted to Peter Galison, whose brilliant book Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré’s Maps was an immense help in analyzing the relationship between Einstein’s thought and that of Poincaré. These two texts are not, however, identical in their aims. Galison’s book describes how the technical backgrounds of the two men – Einstein’s evaluation of patent applications for time coordination devices and Poincaré’s position at the French Bureau des Longitudes – influenced their ideas about the nature of synchronized timing systems, simultaneity across long distances, and absolute Newtonian time. In contrast, this thesis takes both Poincaré and Einstein’s experience in the patent office as elements of the conjuncture from which the epistemological break into modern physics emerged. Insofar as it traverses similar terrain, it does so from a far more abstractly philosophical perspective.

    Similarly, one might hear echoes of Galison and Lorraine Daston’s Objectivity or The Invisible Century by Richard Panek in my ongoing discussion of scientific vision. However, because this thesis works mostly on an epistemological level, it deals with vision primarily as a part of the familiar visual metaphor for knowledge. While this analysis could certainly be extended to discuss the ways that vision plays into changing notions of scientific knowledge at a more material level as those books do, that is beyond the scope of my current project.

    This thesis begins with an analysis of classical physics. We will study the mechanical view, which dominated science in the nineteenth century by arguing that all physical phenomena are the result of the interaction of matter and forces. In doing so, we will find it necessary to explore a pair of concepts – Kuhn’s paradigm and Althusser’s problematic – that will be the basic units of epistemological analysis going forward. In analyzing the problematic of classical physics, I will argue that it was a thoroughly empiricist discipline, which took itself to be in the business of discovering the universal laws of nature.

    In the third chapter, we will explore the historical conjuncture in which Einstein was working. Following the reading list of the Olympia Academy, the modest philosophical discussion group of which Einstein was elected president, we will evaluate physics’ cutting edge in the years before Einstein’s annus mirabilis. Along the way, I will introduce the Althusserian notion of symptomatic reading, the means by which I see Einstein effecting an epistemological break. We will also examine analytic philosophy’s traditional problem of knowledge and see why it cannot handle the epistemological rupture of a scientific revolution. Finally, I will introduce Foucault’s archaeology as the historical method necessary for our philosophy of science.

    In the fourth chapter, we will undertake our own symptomatic reading of two of Einstein’s annus mirabilis papers, “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies” and “On a Heuristic Point of View About the Generation and Conversion of Light.” This is the core of the thesis, for it will show how our philosophy of science uniquely handles the challenge of the annus mirabilis by identifying the truly revolutionary character of Einstein’s physics. At this point, our philosophy will coalesce around the notion of the epistemological break, with a series of arguments intended to show the intellectual power that comes from combining Foucauldian archaeology’s pure analysis of discourse with Althusser’s understanding of knowledge as the result of a process of production.

    In the fifth chapter, I will conclude by articulating the coherence of our philosophy of science, showing how the theories of Althusser, Foucault, and Kuhn benefit from their combination.

    Finally, I have included a pair of historical appendices. While I have tried to write this essay in a manner that will be accessible to both physicists and philosophers, I believe some readers might appreciate an overview of the relevant physics. These appendices narrate the transformation of classical physics into quantum mechanics and general relativity, reviewing the important characters: not only people but also important theories and experiments. I urge the reader to take these with caution, and to bracket, as much as possible, the continuity they foist on the fundamentally discontinuous history of physics. The attentive reader will immediately recognize how they violate nearly all the tenets of Foucault’s archaeology, which seeks to break down the enforced coherence of standard historical narratives. Aside from these appendices, I have tried to construct the body of this thesis according to the dictates of the archaeological method by producing an archive of physical knowledge. I hope that my attempt to aid the mathematically disinclined reader does not undermine that archaeological effort.


What is our knowledge worth?