Saving Newton or destroying Newton? Popular and professional physics publishing in the 1920s

The below is based on a paper that I’m going to be giving at the 24th International Congress of History of Science, Technology and Medicine (iCHSTM). It’s an academic conference, but there are also public events and stuff (if you happen to be in Manchester at the end of July). And there’s a blog, where this post originally appeared.

History is a tricky business. For the majority of those who study it, our main source of information is words. These were written down long ago (or perhaps not so long ago, depending on your preferred time period) and were chosen by particular people for particular purposes. There are endless complications. Is it possible to tell if somebody was speaking from the bottom of their heart or deliberately manipulating their audience? How are we to uncover what happened before, during and after the act of communication? Just what are we supposed to do with all these words?

I suppose we could start by looking at some context. For my paper at ICHSTM, the context is early-twentieth-century British physics. This was a period of quite dramatic change in the discipline – the last few years of the nineteenth century had seen the discovery of X-rays, radioactivity and the electron (disclaimer: J. J. Thomson conceived of this not as the ‘electron’ but as a similar-but-different ‘corpuscle’). This was followed by the quantum and relativity theories, which really shook things up. The atom was broken up, matter was disintegrating, energy was jumping around in tiny packets, and time and space were sort of the same thing. The natural world was no longer as it had first seemed. It was all very exciting.

But when it came to talking about these changes, putting them into words, there were certain difficulties. Depending on how you interpreted the new ideas, there was the suggestion that they overturned a lot of previous knowledge, including Newton’s laws of mechanics. This didn’t sit that well with the idea of science as progressive, building on the work of those who had come before. Physics in particular was supposed to be sturdy, providing the foundations of all other sciences. But instead we had a discipline whose very foundations could seemingly be destroyed at any moment. Just as damaging, physics was apparently breaking ties with the father of modern science himself, Sir Isaac Newton. The implications for public trust in science were rather worrying, and physicists needed to take this into account when they spoke about their work.

In 1930, the physicist James Jeans published a best-selling popular science book, called The Universe Around Us. Here, describing how one can use the speed in orbit and distance from the sun of any planet in order to determine the sun’s gravitational pull, Jeans noted that this ‘provides striking confirmation of the truth of Newton’s law of gravitation’. And while Einstein had ‘recently shewn that the law is not absolutely exact’, this amount of inexactness was only revealed in Mercury’s orbit, ‘and even here it is so exceedingly small that we need not trouble about it for our present purpose’.  In the following few pages, Newton’s law was ‘confirmed’ twice more, and Jeans found himself again levying ‘toll on the mathematical work of Newton’.  When he moved away from celestial space on to notions of time, Jeans yet again found that ‘it is a matter of complete indifference for our present purpose whether we use the law [of gravity] in Newton’s or in Einstein’s form; for stellar problems the two are practically indistinguishable, and there is abundant evidence . . . in favour of either’.  For practical purposes, Jeans noted that he was happy to use either theory, or even any other ‘not entirely dissimilar law’.

But did Jeans really think Newton was still relevant, or was this a deliberate attempt to present physics in a certain way, at a time when it was in danger of losing its precious connections to the beloved 17th century scientist? How do we uncover the true meaning of his words? Perhaps by looking at another aspect of Jeans’ career, his position from 1919 to 1929 as Physical Secretary of the Royal Society. In this capacity, Jeans had a considerable amount of influence over what was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London (Section A), one of the most prestigious physics journals in Britain. He decided whether papers should be immediately published, immediately rejected, or sent to a reviewer. And in this capacity, Jeans was no friend to older ideas and methods.

Responding to a paper that tackled atomic structure without incorporating recent ideas in quantum theory, Jeans declared that in such a problem classical mechanics led nowhere at all. This angered the communicator (although not author) of the paper, the Cambridge mathematician and self-styled curmudgeon Joseph Larmor. He confided in his friend Oliver Lodge, declaring that Jeans was now banning Newtonian atomic theory from the journal. While this was certainly an exaggeration, Jeans’ work at the Royal Society does indicate a hefty bias towards ‘modern’ physics. This is evident not just in his comments on papers, but also his choice of referees, with papers being passed on to ‘modern’ reviewers.

While Jeans was writing a popular publication that stressed the continuing importance of Newton, he was using a professional publication to dismiss ‘Newtonian’ contributions to the field. He was helping to establish a new status quo of modern physics, at the same time as obscuring the extent of this change from the wider public. The words he published, and allowed others to publish, were carefully chosen to create two contradictory consensuses (consensi?).

Of course, you might argue that quantum theory was fully accepted by the 1920s, so of course Jeans would choose quantum theorists as referees and reject papers that attempted to bypass now-established theories and practices. And perhaps his popular book was simply a valiant effort to hide certain anti-Newtonian developments from a naïve public that frankly didn’t need to know this stuff. This is one interpretation. An alternative is that we now think quantum theory was accepted by the 1920s because of the very editorial policies employed by Jeans. We might also suggest that Jeans wasn’t helping a confused public, but rather manipulating them to protect his, and his discipline’s, own interests. Words can be powerful tools.


Materialism, vitalism and interdisciplinarity: from Thomas Nagel to 1913

I ended the last post with some vague references to materialism, a threat/promise of primary sources, and a rather abrupt ‘TO BE CONTINUED’. So, let us continue. Here, I use the recent controversy surrounding philosopher Thomas Nagel as an excuse to talk about early-twentieth-century debates on the subjects of materialism and vitalism. Warning – it’s long and it gets pretty historical.

Before I was rudely interrupted by my own self-imposed word count, I’d started talking about the idea of physics as containing foundational theories that underlie all of science (and, some might say, human knowledge). If you extend this to full-blown materialism, then everything in the universe is composed of sub-atomic particles. This doesn’t just include the obvious stuff, like tables and rice krispies, but also thoughts. It has been summed up by Francis Crick, one half of the team that uncovered the double helix structure of DNA:

‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. Who you are is nothing but a pack of neurons.

More recently, the biologist Jerry Coyne has stated that all sciences are in principle (but not yet in practice) reducible to the law of physics, and this must be true unless you’re religious. This is quite a statement, not least because it fundamentally separates religious scientists (who do exist) from atheist scientists. It seems to suggest that religious scientists can never be truly objective, because their religious commitments won’t allow them to be. This is true. But what is also true is that scientists with immovable commitments to materialism can also never be truly objective. (Nobody can.) They might argue superiority on the grounds of materialism’s basis in evidence but it’s quite a leap from the ‘evidence’ to such an over-arching theory.

And why should opposition to materialism be instantly tied up with religion? This is a problem the philosopher and atheist Thomas Nagel has faced, after publishing a book last year titled Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. Unsurprisingly, a lot of scientists and philosophers really didn’t like it very much (although you can’t feel too sorry for Nagel – with a title like that, he was clearly courting controversy). The backlash is very nicely detailed here, with an account of a meeting of a group of staunch materialists (long read, but a good one, from which I have liberated many ideas and examples, in case anybody thinks I’m being original in my research here).

One of Nagel’s main problems with materialism is quite a simple one – it goes against common sense. This is a relatively recent problem for science, which for quite a while was promoted on the basis that its rational common-sense view of nature could be understood by anybody. In the early twentieth-century, relativity theory messed this all up by making absolutely no sense to more than about 6 people in the world. Its incomprehensibility was used as a marketing tool, and the public were now advised to just trust the experts. A little under a century later, at the aforementioned materialism meeting, there was a debate about how much this ‘public’ should be aware of. Should we, the scientists and philosophers wondered, explain the consequences of materialism – that colours and sounds don’t exist, that there’s no such thing as free will when our thoughts and actions are determined by the movement of atoms? Would this lead to the abandonment of personal responsibility, and descent into chaos? Maybe best to leave the truth to minds that can handle it.

The materialist approach is very successful – it works by seeking out things that can be detected and measured, and then it detects and measures them. If something can’t be understood using the laws of physics, then it must not exist. Levelling charges of non-existence against all empirical anomalies is a bold scientific method. And it reminds me of attitudes towards the aether in the early twentieth century. As physicists became more and more focused on quantifying everything, they had no need for such a weird theoretical mechanism. If the numbers worked without it, then it might as well not exist. Some physicists denounced it, most just ignored it, and eventually the theory went away.

This was a time when the notion of materialism was being hotly debated. The philosophy had come into its own in the mid nineteenth century, during defences of Darwin’s theory of evolution. T. H. Huxley (‘Darwin’s bulldog’) ensured that the theory would forever be remembered as an antagonist to religion by engaging in heated debate with the Bishop Samuel Wilberforce. Huxley believed in scientific naturalism, a less extreme form of materialism in that it accepted that events in the mind were real. However, as these mental events could exert no control over the natural world, the actions of nature and man were still determined solely by material laws. A number of scientists responded to scientific naturalism by arguing for the compatibility of science and religion, and the nineteenth century ended with a push by many towards natural theology, a concept of evolution as divinely planned.

Natural theology fit in quite well with the ideas of the French philosopher, Henri Bergson. In 1907, he published Creative Evolution, a book in which he argued that evolution was governed by a creative force, which he named the élan vital. Just like divine plans, the élan vital was situated outside of a purely materialist concept of nature. For those who identified instead as vitalists, it was very appealing. Perhaps for this reason, Bergson became incredibly popular in Britain, with more than 200 articles about him appearing in English publications between 1909 and 1911. By the time he visited the country in 1911, society types were clamouring to see him. You were nobody if you hadn’t been to a Bergson lecture.

At the same time, a fair few (but still a minority of) scientists were studying the ‘supernatural’. The Alchemical Society, founded in London in 1912, saw alchemists in conversation with mainstream chemists, discussing the spiritual implications of new developments in atomic science. Similarly, the Society for Psychical Research, founded in 1882, boasted a number of prestigious physicists in senior positions, including J. J. Thomson, William Crookes, Lord Rayleigh and Oliver Lodge. These psychical researchers were using scientific methods to study telepathy and life after death. Oliver Lodge believed the aether could be used to connect the physical and psychical worlds, but other scientists were using newer developments in physics to study the occult. It’s not really that surprising. At the end of the nineteenth century, physicists had discovered a new kind of ray that allowed them to see through flesh. As the twentieth century progressed, theories of atomic structure started to suggest that solid objects were actually mostly empty space. And radioactivity was pretty weird. Why shouldn’t ghosts exist as well?

Understandably, the materialists weren’t too happy about the rise of Bergson fans and spiritualists, and between 1912 and 1914 their grievances were aired in the pages of Bedrock, a short-lived journal that promoted rationality. While situated firmly in the anti-Bergson camp, the editors encouraged lively debate, publishing heated discussions on the topics of vitalism and materialism, telepathy, and Bergson’s evolution. A recurring question asked whether science was progressing in a materialist or vitalist direction. Hugh Elliott, author of Modern Science and the Illusions of Professor Bergson (a book whose highly critical take on the French philosopher received a glowing review in Bedrock), took the former view. It is, he declared, ‘common knowledge that for some centuries past the sphere of mechanical interpretations has been increasing, while the sphere of spiritual interpretations has been decreasing.’

However, there were also arguments that materialism was coming to an end, and this was countered by Elliott’s materialist peers. Bryan Donkin was an editor of Bedrock and physician who would later in life criticise psycho-analysis for not being sufficiently ‘scientific’. In an article on ‘Science and Spiritualism’ he referred to an oft declared view ‘in newspapers as well as from the pulpit and the platform that the “materialistic science” of the nineteenth century has receded before the “scientific philosophy” of such teachers as Professor Bergson in the twentieth’. Donkin countered that, for those ‘who recognise no scientific revolution, nor any victory over the accepted methods of scientific research by any philosophies whatever’, such attempts at reconciliation between science and spiritualism are regarded as ‘mere logomachy’. (← excellent word)

Donkin’s article was published not long before the 1913 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Here, Oliver Lodge delivered a Presidential Address that attacked many aspects of modern physics, including a growing tendency to ignore that which could not be readily measured (an obvious reference to the aether). While he managed to refrain from mentioning ghosts for most of his speech, Lodge couldn’t contain himself and ended with a defence of spiritualist research, noting that there was much evidence in favour of the idea of life after death. The media response that followed this address suggests that Lodge’s spiritualist ideas were extremely popular to the wider public (if frowned upon by many of his colleagues) and there was a lot of support for his unorthodox attempts to marry science and religion. What was ‘logomachy’ for some, for others was a new kind of science, more inclusive and less at odds with spiritual beliefs.

It seemed completely impossible (as it does today) for either side to convince the other of their beliefs. A lot of the problems came from viewing disciplines too rigidly, and dismissing anybody who tried to cross over from one to another. Elliott argued that ‘vital laws’ were simply mechanical laws under a new name. He accused vitalist physicists of being unable to find such laws in their own discipline, and thus turning to biology to find them. When it came to the subject of telepathy, which was being seriously considered by some physicist-members of the Society for Psychical Research, the biologist Ray Lankester declared that no modern biologists believed in this phenomenon, it instead being the preserve of ‘physicists who have strayed into biological fields’.

Such physicists were dismissed as having no training in experimental psychology, resulting in their acceptance of faulty evidence. However a psychical researcher, J. Arthur Hill, levelled the same criticism at mainstream biologists, arguing that they may have read books on psychical research, but had no experimental experience. Hill remarked how curious it was ‘to find how apparently unscientific an educated man can be, even in our modern times, when he goes outside his own particular province’. Conversely, the anti-materialist psychologist, William McDougall, suggested that the materialists actually had too much practical experience, to the detriment of their powers of thinking. He accused them of sloppy reasoning, using statements such as ‘we are compelled to believe’, unaccompanied by ‘any train of reasoning from established premises’. He argued that the `biological materialist is commonly a laboratory specialist’, and subsequently had not developed a truly scientific or philosophical attitude. The message on all sides was clear – stick to your own subject.

This, of course, is Nagel’s great downfall. He’s a philosopher straying into scientific areas, which would be fine if only he agreed with the scientists. (Although there are apparently many scientists on his side – Nagel just didn’t mention any of them in his book.) Materialist scientists seem happy to collaborate with philosophers when they’re in agreement, but any divergence and they’re accused of being ‘armchair’ thinkers. There’s an imbalance in the relationship – science can falsify a philosophy, but philosophy can’t falsify a scientific theory. But, as I think I was trying to say in the previous post, everybody probably has a lot to learn from other disciplines – it should go both ways. I’m aware that I’m not really following this advice – I keep talking about how scientists should listen to people outside of their field, but I haven’t suggested anything that historians (me) can learn from the sciences. Hope to find out more about that tomorrow.

EDIT: An oddly relevant article just appeared on my Twitter feed – why science needs help from metaphysics

Why do we call it ‘modern’ physics and why should anybody care about the reasons why?

A rambling mess about my PhD

About 4 years ago, I applied for a PhD to study the transition from classical to modern physics in Britain. I knew relatively little about physics, having dropped it at school because it was boring and I was never able to understand how a fridge works. And I wasn’t really familiar with the categories of ‘classical’ and ‘modern’ physics. But I thought the project sounded interesting, and I really didn’t like my job. Miraculously, I was given money to quit and move to Manchester (which is something I thoroughly recommend doing). And I quickly set about trying to find out what it is I was supposed to be studying. As is so often the case with history, I was given a ‘received interpretation’ and told to look into it.

Here’s how the basic story goes (bear with me):
As the end of the nineteenth century approached, physicists were pretty pleased with themselves. They had the aether, this weird stuff that was everywhere and explained everything (slight oversimplification). They had a nice theoretical framework for important technologies like steam power. They had decided, and mostly convinced everybody else, that their discipline underpinned all others. And they could namedrop Newton whenever they liked. But then, with the twentieth century just round the corner, weird things started happening. Wilhelm Röntgen discovered X-rays. Henri Becquerel discovered radioactivity. J. J. Thomson ‘discovered’ the electron (although he called it a ‘corpuscle’ and didn’t conceptually relate it to the electron that his theory-inclined peers had been discussing). It would seem that matter was stranger than we’d first thought. And of course it got stranger. In the early twentieth century, quantum theory emerged, postulating that energy jumped around in little packets. This was a BIG problem for physicists of the Victorian tradition, who liked everything to be continuous and connected. Yes, matter had been discontinuous for some time, and was getting more so, as the atom was split up into little pieces revealing a void of empty space within. But physicists had managed to reconcile continuity with atomism by arguing that all these broken up bits of matter were swimming in the aether. Everything was still connected. But when discontinuity infected energy as well, it got a little bit harder to argue for continuity. And then there was also relativity theory to deal with, messing up time and space irreparably.

At some point after all these developments, people started referring to some types of physics as ‘classical’ and others as ‘modern’. And it stuck. Pretty soon we were looking back at the year 1900, conveniently situated between two centuries, and seeing a revolution in thought. X-rays, radioactivity and subatomic particles were all ‘classical’ – they didn’t defy the laws of Newtonian mechanics. Relativity and quantum theory were too weird – they became ‘modern physics’. Nowadays these categories seem quite obvious. Except that some people don’t really consider relativity theory to be modern physics, but rather an extension of ‘classical’ mechanics. So there’s clearly something of a problem here.

My job (if you can call it that) was to go back to the first few decades of the twentieth century and look at how physicists were actually using these terms, and for what purpose. Why was I doing this? What was the point? Well, that’s what historians do – they look at stuff that happened and say “Hey, this actually occurred slightly differently from what you thought. So? Um, well, you know, nuances.” You have to have some kind of purpose in your life. I do actually occasionally read very good arguments about why history is important, but then I forget them, like I forget everything, because I’m a bad academic in that respect. So I’m pretty sure there’s a fairly good reason for all of this, I just can’t quite remember. Maybe I’ll figure it out. Something to do with helping us think about why we think the things we think about science.
(While I was writing this, Rebekah Higgitt and James Wilsdon were writing something much more important about how history can be used by policy-makers, which answers some of the ‘why’ questions)

Moving beyond whether this is at all important in the larger sense, my research was certainly important for historians of early twentieth century physics (of which there are at least four). Because when you separate an entire discipline into ‘classical’ and ‘modern’, there is the temptation to only look at the ‘modern’ stuff. And then it all gets a bit Whiggish. But classical and modern physics weren’t two separate entities for quite a long time. Our retrospective artificial separation results in an incomplete picture and incorrect characterizations of the people involved. Certain ‘classical’ scientists and institutions get dismissed. We start to see them as obsessed with the ether and continuity, stubbornly clinging to theories that are clearly wrong. We fall into the trap of assuming that people believe ‘wrong’ theories because of stupid philosophical commitments, and that people believe ‘right’ theories purely because they’re correct. Our own biases cause us to only ask certain questions.

Not every historian makes this mistake – in the 70s Paul Forman argued that the development of quantum mechanics in German-speaking countries was directly influenced by the wider intellectual culture of Weimar Germany, which rejected notions of causality and determinism. It was such a good idea, that people now refer to this as the ‘Forman thesis’, which must be pretty cool for Forman. (I met Forman once, in a Chinese restaurant in Washington, but embarrassingly I hadn’t heard of him or his thesis before then. And, more embarrassingly, I fled the restaurant after about two minutes because the humid Washington air was making me miserable. I made excuses about my weak English constitution, went back to my poorly air-conditioned B&B and watched Jersey Shore for 2 hours. It was a high point in my academic career.)

People believe things for all sorts of reasons. And physicists in the early-twentieth century often believed multiple things that, from our current point of view, seem incompatible. It was not unheard of for a physicist to simultaneously praise quantum theory and the aether. So you can’t lump everybody into two categories, particularly if they weren’t even using the categories at the time.

So why did these categories come about? We can find some clues if we look more broadly at other stuff that was going on at the same time. Modernist literature and modern art both emerged towards the end of the nineteenth century. The Church of England had its own modernism, with Anglican Modernists challenging the orthodox view of Christ’s divine status. What these all had in common was a challenging of past authorities and a sense of disconnect with the past. Physics was facing this very problem.

God knows why all these various disciplines all started using the same terms – somebody was definitely copying somebody else. But it’s sort of not surprising that physicists latched on, as these categories are particularly useful for science. Unlike many other disciplines, science is supposed to be progressive, and it tends to make a big deal out of this fact. An artist can quite happily decide to start drawing faces that don’t look like faces, and then get into a philosophical discussion about what art even is, but they sort of get away with it. (Apologies for my description of art – I’m a philistine. Also a lot of modern artists and writers actually did initially struggle with the problem of rejecting old ideas, so what I’ve written isn’t entirely true) But when physicists start devising theories of motion that reject everything that had been believed for the past 200 years, then we have problems. Science had built up a reputation as this great route to knowledge, better than anything else, and physics puts itself at the very centre of this. We’re supposed to trust it. But how can we continue trusting it, when the physicists themselves admit that they’d been wrong all along about the very fundamentals of what they were doing?

We can see the classical / modern divide as a way around this. By designating Newtonian physics as ‘classical’, a word with grand connotations, physicists were able to push him to the side a bit without rejecting him completely. He wasn’t wrong, just different. So they were doing ‘modern’ physics, whilst ignoring ‘classical’ physics, but arguing that they were both physics and they were both good and please don’t lose faith in us, we’re doing our best.

The end.

I was going to put some actual historical evidence in this blog post, but I typed for too long, so never mind. Maybe another time.

P.S. postmodern physics

The Great British Publicity Campaign – Einstein, Eddington and a ‘Revolution in Science’

Newton vs. Einstein

Richard Dark (1932): The Hilarious Universe (Oxford: Basil Blackwell)

In 1919, two small teams of physicists and astronomers set out on two expeditions. One team travelled to Principe in Africa, the other to Sobral in Brazil, but both had the same mission in mind – to take photographs of the sky during an eclipse. That November, some months after their return, the results of these expeditions were announced at a joint meeting between the Royal Society and the Royal Astronomical Society. The following day, The Times reported this meeting under the dramatic headline, ‘Revolution in Science’. While The Times was not averse to science reporting back then, such a headline was hardly the norm. Furthermore, a number of less ‘science-friendly’ publications also chimed in. The socialist Daily Herald gleefully proclaimed a ‘Bloodless Revolution’, the Daily Express noted that something was ‘Upsetting the Universe’, and the Daily Mail contributed with a cheeky ‘Light Caught Bending’.

As is probably clear by now, there was something more interesting going on than a mere eclipse. The scientists’ plan had been to test Einstein’s general theory of relativity, and it would seem they had been successful. Indeed, the expedition has recently been nominated in the Great British Innovation Vote, a venture to find the most important British innovation in science and technology from the past 100 years. With celebrity endorsements a staple of the Great British genre, the science writer Simon Singh has put his backing behind the eclipse expedition, explaining why he chose a test rather than a theory. He argues that theories are only really taken seriously once they’ve been tested, and that after relativity theory had been tested: ‘Newton’s theory of gravity was dead or at least it was wounded on the cosmic scale and Einstein’s theory became king.’

If you believe the newspaper reports of 1919, then this is certainly true. At the same time as proclaiming revolution, The Times also declared ‘Newtonian Ideas Overthrown’, and the next day followed this up with ‘Newton vs. Einstein’. It would seem that the eclipse expedition had been an overwhelming success and Einstein’s theory of relativity had overthrown the Newtonian foundations of physics. But, of course, neither history nor science are ever that straightforward, and the expedition and its results were by no means perfect. If, however, there’s ever a vote for a Great British Science Publicity Campaign, then the expedition would probably do quite well. It may not have single-handedly confirmed relativity theory, but it was framed and reported as if it had, and the results of this are still being seen today.

The making of a revolution in science

The expedition was organised in part by Arthur Stanley Eddington – physicist, Quaker, and (I like to think) general nice guy. He was also Plumian Professor of Astronomy at Cambridge, Secretary of the Royal Astronomical Society, and one of the first British converts to relativity theory. Einstein had already put forward three consequences of relativity theory that could be proved experimentally. The first, the orbit of Mercury when it’s closest to the sun, had long been a problem for Newtonian mechanics and was resolved with relativity theory. The third, involving gravitational redshift, was a bit trickier and would have to wait until 1959 to be measured in a laboratory setting. The second prediction, however, was ripe for observational confirmation. According to Einstein’s theory, starlight should be deflected by the sun’s gravitational field. So when the sun is near the stars, their position should appear to be slightly different from when the sun is further away. (Newtonian mechanics did also predict a deflection, but it was roughly half the amount of Einstein’s deflection.) Unfortunately, with the sun being notoriously bright, you can’t see starlight when it’s nearby – but there is a way around this. Eddington planned to observe the stars during an eclipse. The only problem now was to find a suitable eclipse, and wait for the First World War to be over.

In 1918, the war ended, a Joint Permanent Eclipse Committee (JPEC) was established with Eddington and the Astronomer Royal (Frank Dyson) at its helm, and the eclipse of May 1919, visible in Principe and Sobral, was chosen. Almost immediately, the publicity machine was underway. As early as January 1919, the plans for the expedition were being reported in The Times, and this coverage would continue in the following months, all the way up to the November ‘revolution’ article. The articles were either written by members of the JPEC themselves, or based on information provided by them. (One such member, the astronomer Henry Park Hollis, was hired as The Times’ astronomical correspondent that same year.) Meanwhile Eddington, whose gifts at public exposition would be confirmed by a best-selling book in roughly a decade’s time, was busy promoting the eclipse to any audience that would listen.

The JPEC were able to ensure not only that the eclipse was covered in the first place, but also the nature of this coverage. They framed the expedition as a crucial experiment by setting up a trichotomy of results. Members of the JPEC discussed the expedition in terms of three possible results: zero deflection, the Newtonian-half deflection and Einstein’s deflection. Of course, this ignores all the other amounts in between and alternative explanations. And it meant that if the deflection measured was a bit more than Newton’s and a bit less than Einstein’s, then Einstein would still be victorious.

In the end, the results obtained weren’t exactly definitive. The Principe skies were cloudy, a lot of the photographs didn’t come out very clear, and the deflection appeared to be somewhere in the middle of the two values. But because the press, the public and other scientists had been primed to expect a crucial experiment, they were happy to accept this as a crucial result. And Eddington’s credibility helped matters considerably. When he announced his results at the November meeting, most people in the audience were pretty sure they’d just witnessed a definitive confirmation of relativity theory. One such audience member was Peter Chalmers Mitchell, a prestigious biologist who was also forging a second career for himself as The Times’ scientific correspondent. He wrote a relatively measured report of the meeting, an enthusiastic sub-editor (presumably) tacked on the dramatic ‘Revolution in Science’ headline, and a media storm was born. While the ‘Revolution in Science’ article did a lot of the work here, it was the earlier articles, carefully fed to The Times by the JPEC, which laid down the foundations. Here we have a master class in public relations, a lesson in how to be both effective and invisible (until a pesky historian unravelled the whole thing 80 years later).

Epilogue: Damage control

But the JPEC publicity campaign can also serve as a warning of the unintended consequences of press attention. Because framing the whole thing as a ‘revolution’ didn’t really fit in with the notion of scientific progress that Eddington and many of his peers were trying to promote. The potential dangers of a rhetoric of revolution were evident even before The Times’ famed headline. In May 1919, an article in the Manchester Guardian noted:

‘It is a useful reminder in this age of enlightenment that however tall and wonderful be the structures that science builds she is all but childishly ignorant still of the bases on which they are reared’
‘The Eclipse of the Sun’, The Manchester Guardian, 26 May 1919, p.6

Physicists had spent a couple of hundred years defining their discipline as the ‘king’ of the sciences, the ultimate route to knowledge. Newton’s fundamental laws of mechanics were central to this, providing the foundations of all natural actions and phenomena. If it now turned out that Newton had been wrong all along, then why should anybody believe a physicist ever again? This was a problem for Eddington – he was eager to promote Einstein’s theory as an exciting new development in physics, but he hadn’t been planning on denouncing Newton. The Times headline maybe went slightly too far. And the situation wasn’t helped by other physicists also shouting ‘revolution’: Oliver Lodge, a vocal sceptic of relativity theory, went so far as to publicly compare relativists to Bolsheviks.

Eddington responded to ‘revolution’ with some damage control. In late November he wrote that it was ‘not necessary to picture scientists as prostrated by the new revelations, feeling that they have got to go back to the beginning and start again. The general course of experimental physics will not be deflected, and only here and there will theory be touched.’ Another JPEC member, the astronomer Andrew Crommelin, responded in a similar fashion, insisting that ‘some newspapers went too far in speaking of the Einstein theory as overthrowing the Newtonian theory’. He pointed out that the practice of astronomers wouldn’t be affected and ‘it would not be necessary to make new planetary tables at all’.

It was a fine line to tread, and it continued to be trod for the next two decades as physicists dealt with the implications of their modern theories. But it seems to have been a success. Today, Newtonian and Einsteinian concepts of the universe happily coexist. The foundations of physics have not been shattered. Eddington got his crucial experiment and exactly the conservative revolution he wanted.


Alistair Sponsel (2002): ‘Constructing a ‘revolution in science’: the campaign to promote a favourable reception for the 1919 solar eclipse experiments’, British Journal for the History of Science 35(4): 439-467

J. Earman and C. Glymour (1980): ‘Relativity and Eclipses: The British Eclipse Expeditions of 1919 and their Predecessors’, Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences 11(1): 49-85

Matthew Stanley (2003): ‘An Expedition to Heal the Wounds of War”: The 1919 Eclipse and Eddington as Quaker Adventurer’, Isis 94(1): 57-89