Figures of Light in the Early History of Relativity (1905–1914)

  • Scott A. Walter
Part of the Einstein Studies book series (EINSTEIN, volume 14)


Albert Einstein’s bold assertion of the form invariance of the equation of a spherical light wave with respect to inertial frames of reference (Einstein, Annalen der Physik 322:891–921) became, in the space of 6 years, the preferred foundation of his theory of relativity. Early on, however, Einstein’s universal light-sphere invariance was challenged on epistemological grounds by Henri Poincaré, who promoted an alternative demonstration of the foundations of relativity theory based on the notion of a light ellipsoid. A third figure of light, Hermann Minkowski’s lightcone also provided a new means of envisioning the foundations of relativity. Drawing in part on archival sources, this paper shows how an informal, international group of physicists, mathematicians, and engineers, including Einstein, Paul Langevin, Poincaré, Hermann Minkowski, Ebenezer Cunningham, Harry Bateman, Otto Berg, Max Planck, Max von Laue, A. A. Robb, and Ludwig Silberstein, employed figures of light during the formative years of relativity theory in their discovery of the salient features of the relativistic worldview.



Key points of this paper were elaborated in discussions with Olivier Darrigol, Tilman Sauer, June Barrow-Green, and David Rowe; their help is much appreciated. The paper benefits from the expert assistance of Kathryn McKee and Fiona Colbert of St. John’s College, whom I thank most kindly. Citations of the Joseph Larmor Correspondence are by permission of the Master and Fellows of St. John’s College, Cambridge. Permission to quote from the Council Minutes of the London Mathematical Society is gratefully acknowledged. I thank the Niedersächsiche Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Göttingen for authorizing publication of the diagram in Figure 1.9. I am grateful for the support of the Dibner Rare Book and Manuscript Library and to its staff members Lilla Vekerdy and Kirsten van der Veen for their able assistance during my residence in 2013. A preliminary version of the paper was published in 2011 on PhilSci-Archive.


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre François VièteUniversité de NantesNantes CedexFrance

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