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Who Did the Math for General Relativity First, Einstein or Hilbert? (medium.com/cantors-paradise)
146 points by laronian on Aug 7, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 60 comments

The history misses several salient steps, like Lorentz and Poincare describing special relativity before 1905. I guess if you want to describe the controversy of general relativity you might not want to get distracted by the controversy over special relativity... but a pattern starts to emerge.

Then the history leaves out Nordstrom's contributions to the theory of gravity which are really important if you are going to state that "It is indisputable that Hilbert, like all of his other colleagues, acknowledged Einstein as the sole creator of relativity theory," it seems Hilbert was simply willing to drop it. Almost all practitioners I am aware of are at the very least aware of the contributions of Marcel Grossman even if nobody knows about Nordstrom and others. It is a huge overstatement to say that Einstein was the sole creator.

Reading about the history of Nordstrom's theory of gravity is far more illuminating on the actual active research attempting to find a relativistic theory of gravity. In fact a student of Lorentz, Fokker, working with Einstein was able to show that Nordstrom's theory was equivalent to an expression involving the ricci scalar and a trace of the stress energy tensor. Unlike Einstein's proposal around this time, it was diffeomorphism invariant. It is likely this development, by Fokker, lead Einstein to propose the R_ij = 8\pi T_ij formulation he was pushing before the controversial period with Hilbert.

Why might this be important? Well people have a tendency to be interested in history. The extended history involving Hilbert, Nordstrom, Grossman and more is important because it is more illuminating to the reality of how physical theories are actually developed. It turns out that maybe Einstein doesn't deserve the level of hero worship he gets, which certain types of people may find invigorating. Also, this episode shows that petty squabbles and politics exist in "modern" science.

I would love to read a deep dive into the history of (semi) modern science. In particular, one that would avoid pop-science analogies and that is unafraid of technical detail. Ideally one that is more focused on the intricacies and lineage of research than the particulars of researchers' personal lives.

I feel that academics often have significant insight into the history of their own fields and personalities therein, but that knowledge is rarely condensed/disseminated. Perhaps it's because matters can get quite political and subjective at that level.

In physics there is a rich literature documenting its history. And as you mentioned, it is scattered around books, periodicals and scientific journals. A very small selection for you and any people interested:

From Emilio Segre (Nobel Laureate) there is this 2 book series.Recommended. - From Falling Bodies to Radio Waves [1] - From X-rays to Quarks [2]

Then, you have Abraham Pais, all his books are highly recommended, I will include 2 here

[3] Subtle is the lord (Best Einstein Scientific Biography) [4] Inward Bound (Superb Scientific history of XX century physics)

Jagdish Mehra wrote a gargantuan history of Quantum Mechanics in six volumes. He studied and /or interviewed most of the big hitters who developed the theory. The science content is high so you need a good foundation.

[5] The Historical Development of Quantum Theory

Richard Westfall wrote the best Newton biography that I know.

[6] Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton

Finally the issue number 2 of the 72nd volume of Review of Modern Physics [7] is a gem; packed with historical reviews of the development of all fields in physics during the 20th century, written by eminent people.

Of course this is just a minuscule sample of an extraordinary bibliography. Sadly life is so short to make it justice.

[1] https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0486458083 [2] https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0486457834 [3] https://www.amazon.com/dp/019853907X [4] https://www.amazon.com/dp/0198519974 [5]https://www.amazon.com/Historical-Development-Quantum-Theory... [6] https://www.amazon.com/dp/0521274354 [7] https://journals.aps.org/rmp/issues/71/2

Thanks for the recommendations! Found a couple of books I'd like to purchase, read the first twenty or so pages at one go, then relegate it to the pile along with the 50 others that have been replaced by new ones.

Academics really do not have significant insight into the history of their own field. The problem is really, that history makes for a nice introductory paragraph and by the time you can call yourself an academic you are very confident in your knowledge of history of the field because you read hundreds of times the introductory paragraph.

To make matters worse, the introductory paragraph was written by someone who has no training as an historian, and therefore also just paraphrases some tradition of introductory paragraphs.

As a concrete example, Newton's laws are actually not in the principia, but instead only appear a hundred years or so after his death. ( It is actually not unreasonable to still call them Newton's laws, but the argument is a lot more complicated than "Newton wrote Newton's laws.")

Oxford's Newton Project text of the book has the Newton's Laws in the 1687 version here: [http://www.newtonproject.ox.ac.uk/view/texts/normalized/NATP...]

What makes you think they were not?

I had a professor briefly that studied the history of mathematics. During lectures while he was developing out proofs he would often describe the historical context in which the proof was first developed. Galois has a particularly interesting (tragic) story.

There are a lot of interesting historical figures. Probably most people stick to the figures most familiar to them in their own field. The histories of Dijkstra and Turing come to mind... it strikes me that I don't know a lot about Knuth.

Speaking of Knuth, he is extraordinary in this regard apparently as the rigor of his expositions matches his attention to the historical details. Add to that his meticulousness for properly (and aesthetically) spelling people's names for good measure.

"What is real?" by Adam Becker. It doesn't touch much on general relativity if you are interested specifically in that, but it's a great read and gives you a bit of perspective how "modern" science works (I mean before the Internet, and back when we were actually moving forward..)

> Perhaps it's because matters can get quite political and subjective at that level.

Much more than I would have thought.


Yes, I remember being surprised when reading in Poincaré's "La science et l'hypothèse" a variant of the famous formula, probably m = E/c^2 ... but in a different context than Einstein's (maybe the 3-body problem?).

Einstein gets the hero worship mostly because of the Annus mirabilis papers on the photoelectric effect, Brownian motion, and Special Relativity. General Relativity was more a curiosity of sorts until the 1970s, and even today people connecting astrophysical observations with Einstein gravitation tend to work with a (often linearized) approximation for practical reasons and with a range of theoretical justifications and mechanisms to connect back to the Einstein Field Equations as the underlying more-fundamental theory.

Practically every grad student encountering Kaluza-Klein (and other supergravities) or the PPN formalism will spend some time with Nordström's gravitation (and of course it is discussed in §27.6 and §38.2 of Misner Thorne & Wheeler, the gold standard textbook). In the latter case it is straightforward to see in modern terms where Nordström's 1913 theory would clash with solar-system observations (it was ruled out by the Eddington eclipse observation) and spectacularly falls apart for compact massive objects like the Hulse-Taylor binary. The theory inverts the spatial curvature generated by matter (PPN \gamma parameters for Newton, GR, and Nordstöm 1913 are 0, 1, and -1 respectively) and is only half-right for gravitational nonlinearity (\beta parameters 0, 1, and 1/2). Einstein-Fokker 1914 fails under PPN analysis in the same way, except that they properly fix the \zeta_{4} dynamical conservation parameter as 0, unlike Nordström 1913.

In my view, early 20th century alternatives to GR are interesting for how they failed. I accept the part of your argument that it is more interesting to some than to others about how much cross-fertilization there was among the developers of these theories. However, only GR has survived contact with all experimental tests, and it has proven extremely difficult for alternatives to match over multiple solid angle and wavelength scales what astronomers observe. The ways in which various extra-field approaches have failed are frankly more useful for theoretical physicists than the ways in which they were developed in the first place. And for astrophysicists, the only thing that matters is what has not -- so far -- failed.

So however he got there, at least with respect to gravitation Einstein deserves recognition for having produced pretty much the only viable physical theory. There's really only Jordan/Brans-Dicke in the limit of a vanishing \frac{1}{\omega} parameter, but at zero the theory reduces to GR itself; Einstein-Cartan-Sciama-Kibble if one does headstands to suppress spacetime torsion; early-decay bimetric theories, where the second metric field decouples or vanishes before nucleosynthesis; supergravity, if one figures out how to hide the gravitino; and string theory (M-theory), if one figures out the landscape problem and/or works out a general emergence of a PPN match. Notably every one of these evolved from General Relativity mostly because of its unique successes -- however, I think it is more interesting and better to say that these remain viable because they can in certain circumstances fully reproduce General Relativity.

> In fact a student of Lorentz, Fokker, working with Einstein was able to show that Nordstrom's theory was equivalent to an expression involving the ricci scalar and a trace of the stress energy tensor. Unlike Einstein's proposal around this time, it was diffeomorphism invariant.

"I know some of these words."

Ricci scalar: number assigned to each point of a space describing curvature at that point

Stress-energy tensor (field): multidimensional quantity assigned to each point of a space describing how matter and energy are concentrated and moving at that point.

Trace: coordinate invariant transformation that turns a tensor field into a scalar field.

Diffeomorphism invariant: the object in question has the same description regardless of arbitrary coordinate changes

IIRC from the book Chaos it was often referred to as Poincaré’s relativity theory in France.

I find it uncanny how a "who got it first?" become a salient question today whereas as the time it was obvious both were excited at collaborating to make a theory that works well.

Really makes you wonder what would research would like without the race for publication.

What I was taught about this "rivalry" is that Einstein struggled with some parts of the theory and Hilbert proposed some complicated mathematical tools that Einstein at first felt should not be necessary but ended up using after a few months of frustration.

I thought Marcel Grossmann was usually credited with helping Einstein with the tensor approach to General Relativity. All of this was more salient at the time, which the article points out: Hilbert carried a grudge against Einstein for a period of time. Lorentz was bitter about Einstein getting credit for special relativity to the end of his days, and Einstein denied ever having read Lorentz's or Poincare's papers even long after he had moved to the Institute for Advanced Studies. The bitterness and personal politics involved have faded. It is now interesting just from an academic (historical) standpoint.

A lot of quantum field theorist refer to "Einstein summation convention" which is a special case of Ricci calculus and is a notation that was developed together with Levi-Civita by Ricci in their contributions to the field of relativity. At least most quantum field theorist know about Levi-Civita through the Levi-Civita tensor. Given the controversy described in this article one wonders why they are called the Einstein equations and the Hilbert-Einstein action when Einstein indusputably had nothing to do with the derivation of the action principle but Hilbert disputably is responsible for the derivation of the field equations. At the very least people talk about the Lorentz transformation and the Poincare group.

Since general relativity was essentially a unification of the spacetime defined by Maxwell's equations (special relativity) and gravitation, the quest to fully unify the theories that began with Lorentz and Poincare pointing out the strange transformation properties of electric matter continued. A lot of people are aware of Einstein's continued search for a Grand Unified Theory. But in general people are less aware of what theories he introduced (teleparallel gravity for example) or that other people were all trying (Kaluza and Klein for example) and continue to try to this day. In the case of things like dark matter, there might be some hope of measuring the Kaluza-Klein scalar fields or maybe we genuinely need a completely different theory. The history is more interesting because of the missteps, mistakes and politics along the way. It helps us understand the missteps, mistakes and politics of science that are still happening today.

Stigler's law of eponomy says that no scientific law is named after its discoverer [0]. What you're describing is far more common than you might think!

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stigler%27s_law_of_eponymy

Great, new member in the elite club of rules that make their own exception

I don't think it's the case here: "Stigler himself named the sociologist Robert K. Merton as the discoverer of "Stigler's law" to show that it follows its own decree, though the phenomenon had previously been noted by others.", from the wikipedia article.

I was thinking of this indeed, but felt I was already becoming a bit long winded. ;)

I have gotten the impression that Einstein learned the math that he needed to, when he needed to learn it, and that he had hoped to avoid learning the sort of math that Hilbert was already somewhat comfortable with.


Einstein is a bit famous for punching well above his weight compared to his own mathematical background. Most of his great work involves beautiful arguments that requiring only maths that a good-but-not-genius high school student could understand.

The GR paper is a bit disappointing in comparison, because after setting out as much as he can of the physics, he just dives into big equations one after another. That probably roughly follows his own trajectory: first he had some intuition for how space-time curvature could cause some gravity-like effects. But to nail it down he just had to buckle-up and learn the mathematics of non-euclidean geometry.

The nice thing about the paper is that it was one of the first applications of such mathematics to physics, so Einstein takes the time to explain it (which also blows out the equation count).

Can you please post a link to the paper?

See https://einsteinpapers.press.princeton.edu/vol6-trans/

Doc. 21 On the General Theory of Relativity https://einsteinpapers.press.princeton.edu/vol6-trans/110

Doc. 22 On the General Theory of Relativity (Addendum) https://einsteinpapers.press.princeton.edu/vol6-trans/120

Doc. 24 Explanation of the Perihelion Motion of Mercury from the General Theory of Relativity https://einsteinpapers.press.princeton.edu/vol6-trans/124

Doc. 25 The Field Equations of Gravitation https://einsteinpapers.press.princeton.edu/vol6-trans/129

"Who got it first?" has always been a salient question.

See: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leibniz%E2%80%93Newton_calcu...

Kind of pointless question.

Einstein clearly is the "boss" of general relativity. He got the idea, worked on it, applied the maths, etc... So let him have his name.

But he wasn't alone. It is not possible to talk about general relativity without mentioning a dozen of brilliant minds that either helped him along the way or served as a foundation.

A part that I think is often forgotten is about the guys who made observations, the engineers and craftsmen who built the instruments, and the experimentalists who interpreted the results.

General relativity did one thing: solve the inconsistency regarding the orbit of Mercury. And without accurate measurement, that inconsistency would have been within the error margin, making general relativity nothing more than wankery.

No mention of Hermann Minkowski[1]? As any educated mathematician knows, it was Gauss's student Riemann who solved the maths for n-dimensional manifolds, but it was Minkowski who developed modern spacetime.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hermann_Minkowski

Minkowski blew my mind when I fist started to understand his work. Without a doubt the most useful pieces of math I learned after multiplication, and more intuitive even than that.

What work in particular? Minkowski did a lot of neat things. (But I'm not sure I'd describe any of the ones I know of as more intuitive than multiplication.)

His work on the geometry of numbers. It was like a secret decoder ring for the language of higher math at the time, while being both elegant and tangible. Compare to multiplication, which occasionally still bears strangely shaped fruit for me even today.

Does it matter?

I think this misses the forest for the trees.

Yeah, we can focus on the first to discover something, but awards and acknowledgments are often on first to publish, e.g. Make it public.

After all, what does your grand descovery matter if you're the only one that knows about it and someone working in parallel finds it also and publishes first? And how does the scientific community verify the veracity of discovering first if you didnt publish first?

Hilbert might have know about it first, but what does it matter to the world writ large if he didnt publish? Einstein published, and thus the world knows and he is thus recognized for that.

Does it matter?

If we want an accurate historical record of human achievement, yes.

That's separate to the end result. If you're focused on the theory and nothing else, then it doesn't really matter that Einstein wrote it either. We could remove the attribution entirely and the theory would still exist.

Hilbert might have know about it first, but what does it matter to the world writ large if he didnt publish? Einstein published, and thus the world knows and he is thus recognized for that.

That depends on why Hilbert didn't publish first. There are plenty of examples of people from minorities (women and PoC especially) discovering theorems but the scientific community ignoring them, and then a rich white man publishing the same theory to great acclaim. And then, even hundreds of years later, governments failing to fund the education of those minorities on the basis that they're genetically inferior because no one from those minorities has published anything of note.

Correctly attributing discoveries to the right people does make a difference in the wider context of society.

There are plenty of examples of people from minorities (women and PoC especially) discovering theorems but the scientific community ignoring them

Can you provide 2 or 3 examples of that? I know there are STEM contributions on the engineering side - patents, work at NASA - that often go unmentioned, but I've never heard of solid evidence that actual provable research was ignored.

Esther Lederberg - discovered lambda phage in bacteria but the Nobel Prize for Medicine for the discovery went to her husband.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell - discovered pulsars and went on to work with her thesis advisor Antony Hewish and Martin Ryle. They got the Nobel Prize for Physics and she didn't.

Ada Lovelace - invented computer programming but the credit went to Charles Babbage because he invented the hardware (one of the more well known examples; she gets some credit these days).

Rosalind Franklin - discovered the double helix structure of DNA using x-rays. Her theory was denounced by Watson and Crick who believed it was a single helix. They went on to win a Nobel Prize when they changed their minds and said it was actually a double helix after all.

Lise Meitner - discovered nuclear fission but the credit and Nobel Prize went to her lab partner Otto Hahn.

Unfortunately, a lot of that appears to be wrong. (Unfortunately because I'm sure it's true that recognition goes disproportionately to white men in rich Western countries, but you harm your case by giving examples of this that turn out to be wrong.)

Joshua Lederberg's Nobel prize was not for the lambda phage discovered by his wife, it was "for his discoveries concerning genetic recombination and the organization of the genetic material of bacteria".

No question about Burnell. That's a major scandal. The only good news is that everyone knows it now, and I can't remember any occasion when the discovery of pulsars has been mentioned without something along the lines of "of course it was Burnell who discovered the pulsar and it's shocking that Ryle and Hewish got the Nobel and she didn't".

I've never seen Babbage get the credit for inventing computer programming. I have seen him get the credit for designing the first programmable computer, which is fair enough because he did.

I'm interested in the evidence that Franklin discovered the double-helix structure of DNA. For sure her work was super-important and it's scandalous that she didn't get a share in the Nobel prize, but so far as I can tell she specifically thought the structure of DNA probably wasn't helical, even though others working on the problem thought it was.

(It doesn't look to me as if Crick and Watson ever thought the structure was a single helix, either. I think their first model was a triple helix with the phosphate groups on the inside, and Franklin pointed out to them that the phosphates had to be on the outside.)

Meitner should absolutely have got a Nobel (or a share in it) for fission. But what reason is there to think that sexism is why she didn't? Frisch had about as much claim as Meitner, and he was passed over in the exact same way.

Incidentally, what you said before is that it often happens that women and PoC discover theorems and are ignored while rich white men do the same later and get the credit, but none of your examples involves discovering theorems. [EDITED to add:] Oh, but maybe "theorems" was just a typo for "theories", in which case you should probably ignore this paragraph.

>Rosalind Franklin - discovered the double helix structure of DNA using x-rays.

This is a gross mischaracterization. Fraklin certainly took some pictures of DNA using x-ray crystallography, but she absolutely did not figure out the structure.

Yeah - and if you believe Watsons autobiography, she was strongly opposed to the idea that DNA had a helical structure until Watson and Crick basically figured it out and presented her with some very convincing arguments.

Franklins contributions seem pretty overstated compared to how people don't mention all the other people involved that had some critical insight.

As a Ph.D. candidate at Radcliffe, Cecilia Payne discovered that, contrary to accepted theory of the time, stars (and the universe) are mostly hydrogen, and not the same mix of stuff here on earth. Established astronomer Henry Norris Russell reviewed her thesis and got her to drop this conclusion; then he published the same result later, and is typically credited with its discovery.

That's a bit misleading. (Not deliberately, I'm sure.)

When Russell published the same result later, here's one thing he said: "The most important previous determination of the abundance of the elements by astrophysical means is that by Miss Payne, who determined, by Milne's method of marginal appearances, the relative abundance of eighteen of the most important elements." He shows Payne's figures and remarks on how gratifying it is that his numbers agree with hers, given that the methods used to obtain them are so different.

Payne's numbers that Russell compares against include the figure for hydrogen, and indeed that figure does appear in her thesis. So she didn't drop it entirely. What she did do was to add this sentence: "Although hydrogen and helium are manifestly very abundant in stellar atmospheres, the actual values derived from the estimates of marginal appearance are regarded as spurious."

So it's not that Russell suppressed Payne's research and then tried to claim it as his own. She asked him to look at her thesis. He said it was good but that he didn't believe the figure for the abundance of hydrogen. (Nor, I think, would many other astronomers at the time have done.) She published the thesis including her estimate of the abundance of hydrogen, but said that that's "regarded as spurious." Russell continued to work on this stuff (it was already a focus of his research, which is why she sent her thesis to him in the first place) and eventually the evidence became so overwhelming that he changed his mind; when he wrote up a paper presenting that evidence, he credited Payne with having got all the numbers right before he did. None of that seems very bad.

If it's true that Russell is typically credited with the discovery that stars are mostly hydrogen, then that's grossly unfair. I don't know how we could determine whether it's because of sexism or because at the time Russell was incredibly eminent and Payne was a new PhD. (Is it true? If I do a web search for <<henry norris russell discovered abundance hydrogen stars>>, which seems like if anything it should oversample claims that Russell made the discovery, almost all the resulting documents give credit to Payne. Maybe things on the web tend to be very recent and she's been less unfairly neglected lately?)

Right, and he did not include her as a co-author of his paper. That's dirty pool in the academic world.

As for who typically gets credit, yes, I think you'd get a different result if you ask astronomers and astro-physicists who are over 50 years old, or anyone who hung around science museums and planetariums in the 1960's or 70's, or check out old popular science books and magazines, or the Journal for the History of Astronomy October 1983, which takes on the prevailing attitude. Perhaps it's changing, but that's only through the efforts of folks like you, who take the effort to set the record straight.

Why should Payne have been a coauthor of Russell's paper?

It was (so far as I can tell) entirely independent work on the same question. She deserved a citation (which she got) and acknowledgement that she had got numbers very similar to his (which she got), but you don't make someone a coauthor just because you and they are working on the same problem.

Reminds me of Newton, Hooke and Hailey arguments

(c.f https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/De_motu_corporum_in_gyrum)

It has been common to see such debates but at the end having advanced science is the main goal and these fights while fascinating are anecdotal.

I always wonder if one could rewrite math and physics without the use of names to describe a theory or a théorème but rather use a descriptive one.

General relativity is indeed well named instead of Einstein relativity, Pythagorean’s theorem could become the rectangle triangle theorem ...

It is referred to as Einstein gravity by some.

> 2. The precession (change in orientation) of the perihelion (closest point of a planet to its star) of Mercury coming out to 18 inches rather than the observed 45 inches per century;

Certainly 45” is arcseconds here, not inches!

Yes. 45 inches per century would not have been remotely measurable at the time, and may not even be measurable today!

It doesn't seem much like it to me.

Hamilton/Perelman: Hamilton does X. Perelman builds on it to do Y, which solves an important problem. Perelman gets most of the credit and complains that Hamilton ought to get more.

I see two ways to try to map Einstein/Hilbert onto this but neither of them works well.

Einstein/Hilbert #1 (X = differential geometry): Other mathematicians do X. Einstein and Hilbert build on it to get Y, which solves an important problem. Maybe Hilbert gets to Y slightly earlier or slightly later. Einstein gets most of the credit. Hilbert is slightly annoyed.

Einstein/Hilbert #2 (X = early work on general relativity): Einstein does X. Einstein and Hilbert build on it to get Y, which solves an important problem. Maybe Hilbert gets there slightly earlier or slightly later. Einstein gets most of the credit. Hilbert is slightly annoyed.

If you see this as "Einstein, then Hilbert" then the analogy doesn't work because Einstein (earlier) is the one who gets the credit. If you see it as "Hilbert, then Einstein" then it doesn't work because Einstein (later) isn't building on a substantial foundation built by Hilbert (earlier) without Einstein; the foundation is Einstein's for sure, and if Hilbert has priority it's the last step that he got to before Einstein. And in either case it doesn't work because the one who gets the credit is happy to keep it whereas Perelman was really cross that people didn't see how much was due to Hamilton.

Maybe off-topic, but with the dates and places, it's hard not to think of this furiously paced physics and math work happening in the midst of World War 1, and not that far from it.

I wonder how the context affected their work. I would love for a physicist, a mathematician, a historian of science, and Dan Carlin to do a Hardcore History on this period.

A bit of a nit but the section on 'Timeline of relativity theory' should probably start with Galileo - this is still reflected in terminology like 'Galilean principle of relativity', 'Galilean transformation', 'Galilean invariance' etc

That might depend on who's frame of reference we took, Einstein, or Hilbert's? Are either of them on a train at any point?

Not Einstein, he never was a mathematician. He got helped most of the time to do the math(as he should)

It’s clear that it’s not who did the math first that gets recognition, but the person who makes the scientific leap to connect math to new ideas of how the world works.

Lorentz and Poincaré both had mathematical formulations that were the same as Einstein’s special relativity, but Einstein was the one who gets credit for connecting them to what we now call special relativity.

This narrative is very unpersuasive, since the actual mechanics that are used to perform calculations in special relativity and the idea that they should apply to all matter were developed by Lorentz and Poincare starting in the 1890s. The moving clock idea was also introduced by them before Einstein in 1900 and 1904.

The most persuasive narrative to me for why Einstein is credited is because he moved to the USA at the right time and introduced these ideas to American scientists at the time when the USA was starting to become more scientifically prominent than Europe. Of course they would associate those ideas with Einstein and credit him, he would be the citation they would know about and wouldn't have any reason to cite further work since his citations are self contained enough for their purposes. It isn't nefarious, it isn't meritocratic: it is just pragmatic.

I don't buy that narrative. I think that Einstein's special relativity paper showed how the mathematics followed from first principles. Neither Lorentz nor Poincare did that. They may have had the mathematics that worked, they may have had it first. But Einstein told us why.

Which first principle exactly? Because they were already stating that the speed of light would be constant in all frames which is the only thing necessary to derive special relativity. Lorentz derived the transformations precisely to describe this fact!

Certainly not the lack of the aether; while it isn't necessary to describe relativity it isn't precluded either and cosmic time is a thing today. The spacetime we live in is a thing describable in its own right, on large scales it has a preferred time direction.

He was responsible for spreading those ideas, but he certainly wasn't the first one to express them. It is still respectful to give him credit for the spread of these ideas, but we don't need to pretend like Lorentz and Poincare were blind men fumbling around in the dark until he came along in order to justify our reverence.

Hilbert was first to think it, Einstein was first to publish it

Actually, seems Hilbert pushed Einstein to think and publish it first

This reminds me of Wallace pushing Darwin to publish first.

Einstein was a pacifist and agreed with Spinoza's philosophy. I speculate Einstein just wanted things published the earliest in any case and for the next problems to be focused on.

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