Politics of Science and War

The First World War created a particular situation, one in which nations were pitted against each other because of political pacts. However, the Great War not only ripped apart families based on nationality, but it also threatened to destroy scientific co-operation. Two men, driven by a need for truth, were thrown directly into the political machinations that often come with the sudden rise of patriotism in times of war. German Albert Einstein and British Arthur Eddington ignored the caveats of the day and created new laws of gravity.

Prior to Einstein’s theories on gravity, the be all to end all in the world of physics was English scientist Sir Isaac Newton, and to English scientists the pride associated with Newton was more than patriotic, it was pure and simple elation: English science was the best. In 1914 a young English scientist was appointed as director of the Cambridge Observatory, and the defender of Newton. The problem was, a German scientist was catching the attention of English science, because he argued against the absolutism of Newtonian physics. Arthur Eddington learned, very quickly, that Einstein had a point… and more importantly, that Einstein answered questions that Newtonian physics ignored… particularly questions about gravity.

The problem was two-fold: first, England and Germany were at war; and second, a German scientist was saying that Newton was wrong; in particular, Newton was wrong about the gravity (although, arguably, Einstein had Swiss citizenship as well, and was living in Prague in the lead up to the First World War). No one in England liked the idea of a German scientist arguing with Newton, particularly after the signing of the Manifesto to the Civilised World (which Einstein did not sign). The idea that anyone would challenge Newton was unfathomable… it was an even greater blow that a German was challenging a beloved Englishman. The politics of war threatened to deny science its day… Einstein and Eddington conversed illegally, and Eddington helped prove Einstein’s theory of gravity, against the wishes of  most of the English scientific community. It turns out that science can’t be bound by political boundaries, beliefs or wars. The truth is that Einstein (with Eddington’s help) created new laws of gravity, and explained things that Sir Isaac Newton himself could not. Einstein simply didn’t have the money, the influence, or the ability to prove his own theories. Without Eddington, who knows what would have become of Einstein’s theories.

In the movie Einstein and Eddington (BBC/HBO, and no, you can’t buy it in the States, it’s only been released as a Region 2 DVD), Arthur Eddington argues that “if Einstein is right, the Universe will never look the same again.” Big words coming from a man who was the acceptation to the rules of war engulfed Britain. For a man whose entire career was based on the validity of Newtonian physics, Eddington easily acquiesced to the truth presented to him. It’s easy for politics to take over every aspect   of life, particularly in war time, and the politics of science has always been a touchy subject (the Dark Ages ring a bell?). However, it’s important to remember that science is science, and no amount of politics can change fact. In a time when war spanned nations, and politics was the promotion of patriotism, the idea that two meant from two nations on the separate side of politics could come together and create new laws of science shows the fundamental point that sometimes, just sometimes, things need to exist outside of politics influence.

[Einstein would later work with another Englishman, Bertrand Russell, arguing the dangers of nuclear weapons.]


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