A Pass on Relativity
Recently, I was reappointed as historian of The Electrochemical
Society (ECS), despite the fact that I’ve not done a whit of work
in this capacity since 2002. That year was the 100th anniversary
of the founding of ECS and in the preceding year I worked my
tail off co-editing and authoring a centennial history of ECS.
Hence I feel justified in considering myself a “real” historian.
As such, there’s always been a bit of scientific history that
mystified me. How come Einstein never received the Nobel
Prize for his theories of relativity? After all, relativity changed
our view of the way the universe operates, led to the prediction
of black holes, to nuclear power and the atomic bomb and to a
drastically changed view of time and space.
Two weeks ago, I wrote about Walter Isaacson’s new book on
Einstein and how Einstein did get the 1921 Nobel Prize in
physics for his work on the photoelectric effect. The book
details the intrigue behind the Nobel committee’s failure to
recognize relativity. I was intrigued by the winners of the prizes
that bracketed Einstein’s award. The 1922 Nobel award went to
a true superstar, Danish physicist Niels Bohr, who proposed that
electrons orbit the nucleus of an atom, each orbit having a
distinct energy. His model explained the lines appearing in
optical spectra as due to light being generated or absorbed in the
process of electrons hopping from one energy level to another.
On the other hand, the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1920, the year
before Einstein’s award, went to Swiss physicist Charles-
Edouard Guillaume. I hadn’t heard of Guillaume until I read
Isaacson’s book and I venture to guess that, unless they’ve
specifically searched the Nobel records or were in the field of
metal alloys, most physicists wouldn’t know the name either.
When he received his award, Guillaume was Director of the
International Bureau of Weights and Standards. One of this
organization’s duties was to maintain standards of length,
notably the meter, basis of the metric system.
The standard meter was originally housed in Paris as the distance
between two marks on a bar of platinum. At the time, there was
a lot of concern about precise measurements. As measurement
techniques become more precise, one concern was that platinum
expands or contracts with changes in temperature. Not only that,
but platinum is expensive. Consequently, there was a quest to
come up with an alloy cheaper than platinum that would not
expand or contract significantly with changing temperature.
Guillaume was the leader in this quest and came up with invar, a
relatively cheap nickel steel with a very low coefficient of
expansion. It was essentially for invar that Guillaume received
his Nobel Prize in Physics. I went on the official Nobel Prize
Web site (nobelprize.org) and found Guillaume’s Nobel address.
It was like a full-fledged paper in a journal, with detailed graphs
and data. I can imagine the audience bored stiff unless they were
in the metallurgical field.
To me, Guillaume’s work was metallurgy, not physics. I might
note that when I worked for NACA, Lewis Flight Propulsion Lab
in Cleveland back in 1950-1952 I was classified as a “physical
metallurgist”. Don’t get me wrong – Guillaume’s work was very
impressive and important. In addition to the invar work, he also
made an alloy with a coefficient of expansion that matched the
expansion of glass. I used metal-to-glass seals on occasion in my
past and probably owe a debt to Guillaume for that work. He
was obviously a first class metallurgist or materials scientist.
However, it doesn’t seem that the invention of an alloy ranks
with the achievements in physics of Einstein and Bohr.
So, why did Guillaume win the Nobel before Einstein? Einstein
was first nominated for the Nobel in 1910 by Wilhelm Ostwald,
a Nobel laureate in chemistry who had once turned down
Einstein as a job applicant. The 5-member Nobel committee
during the period from 1910-1922 included 3 members from
Uppsala University in Sweden. These three were all
experimentalists in a university devoted to the development of
precise experimental and measuring techniques. Although
Einstein gained further nominations as the years passed, these
experimentalists were unimpressed by his esoteric theories.
When 1919’s solar eclipse confirmed his prediction that light
from a star would be bent by the Sun, Einstein became a
household name and clearly the 1920 prize was in order.
However, Svante Arrehnius, committee chairman, wrote a report
against Einstein, utilizing arguments put forward by Einstein’s
anti-Semitic critics such as Philipp Lenard. (Recall that Nobelist
Lenard was a critic of “Jewish science” and later held a post in
the Nazi regime.) The arguments carried the day and Guillaume
got the 1920 Prize. Isaacson quotes science historian Robert
Marc Friedman: “…. it was remarkable to find Guillaume’s
accomplishment, based on routine study and modest theoretical
finesse, recognized as a beacon of achievement. Even those who
opposed relativity theory found Guillaume a bizarre choice.”
So, what happened in 1921? Surprisingly, nothing! Einstein
received 14 nominations and had the support of theoreticians and
experimentalists alike. Unbelievably, the Nobel committee
assigned Alvar Gullstrand of Uppsala to write a report on
relativity even though Gullstrand, a professor of ophthalmology
and 1911 Nobelist in medicine, wasn’t exactly the type I would
expect to be expert in the math and physics of relativity. His 50-
page report claimed that the eclipse experiments weren’t valid
and Einstein’s explanation of Mercury’s orbit was questionable.
Gullstrand was known for his precise optical measurements and
Einstein’s saying that the length of a measurement rod varies
relative to moving observers was too much for Gullstrand to
swallow. In spite of Gullstrand’s suspect report, he was a very
popular professor. The committee was reluctant to oppose him
and voted to pass on the 1921 award and bank it for another year!
If so, how did Einstein get his 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics? By
1922, it was clear that not giving Einstein the prize was
becoming a reflection on the Nobel rather than on Einstein.
Fortunately, an Uppsala theoretical physicist, Carl Wilhelm
Oseen, joined the committee. A friend of Gullstrand, Oseen
helped Gullstrand see the error of his ways. Furthermore, Oseen
realized that relativity was too controversial and he proposed that
Einstein receive the prize for the photoelectric effect.
Oseen played it cool. As we discussed a couple weeks ago,
Einstein’s major photoelectric effect contribution was to propose
that light travels in quanta (now called photons). Oseen,
however, was careful to push for Einstein receiving the award for
“the discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect.” Note the
emphasis on law, not theory! Oseen paved the way for the
committee to give Einstein the belated 1921 prize, while also
awarding the 1922 prize to Bohr, a one-two punch that would
recognize the two greatest theoretical physicists of the time.
Later, the 1923 Nobel Prize would go to Robert Millikan for his
work on the photoelectric effect at the University of Chicago. In
1922, Arrhenius, a convert after meeting Einstein personally,
cited Millikan’s work as “rigorously” and “brilliantly”
confirming Einstein’s law of the photoelectrical effect.
There was another big winner of the Nobel Prize, which then
amounted to the equivalent of about $32,250. In 1918, desperate
to obtain a divorce, Einstein offered his first wife Mileva all of
the money he would receive when he received the Nobel Prize.
(Einstein, who would marry his cousin Elsa, wasn’t modest about
his chances!) Mileva received the prize money in the form of
trusts in Switzerland and in the U.S.A. Einstein took an active
role in distributing the monies from the trusts until Mileva’s
death in 1948. As with relativity, the handling of the trusts
engendered much controversy but it appears that Einstein did
conscientiously try to protect and provide for Mileva and his
mentally disturbed son Eduard, who lived with Mileva.
Nothing was simple when it came to Einstein!
Allen F. Bortrum