In 1922, at a meeting of the French Society of Philosophy, Henri Bergson (1859-1941), “one of the most respected philosophers of his era,” expressed unhappiness with Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, which discarded the concept of absolute time and denied the reality of simultaneity. Present in the audience, Einstein disagreed.
One consequence was that the Nobel committee changed its mind, awarding Einstein the 1922 prize for explaining the photoelectric effect on the grounds that relativity was still a matter of debate. Both reaffirmed their disagreement over the years, a matter that scholars have not considered of great importance. In this lucid if academic history of scientists’ efforts to measure time and the consequences of their success, Canales (Chair, History of Science/Univ. of Illinois; A Tenth of a Second: A History, 2010, etc.) makes a reasonable case that those scholars were wrong. Einstein did not invent the relativity of time and space, but his 1905 special theory proposed such a revolutionary view of the universe that even those who did (Henri Poincaré, Hendrik Lorentz) balked. Bergson, a brilliant thinker whose writing emphasizes intuition and perception, was also not convinced, “claiming that the sensational conclusions of the physicist’s theory were not so unlike the fantastical searches for the fountain of youth.” Canales dismisses the argument that Bergson, a polymath, didn’t understand the theory of relativity. He and his supporters’ objections stemmed from a “strong repugnance toward a philosophy that wants to explain all reality mechanically.” The author turns up a surprising number of philosophers and scientists who weighed in on an ongoing, if not world-shaking, debate that split the century “into two cultures pitting scientists against humanists, expert knowledge against lay wisdom.”
A dense but accessible discussion of the metaphysical role of time in human affairs.