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Prof. Al Martínez publishes book on origins of Einstein's relativity

Albert Einstein's theory of special relativity undermined the physics that had been established by Isaac Newton and which was widely admired for over two centuries as a paragon of human certainty.

Posted: October 1, 2009
Prof. Alberto Martínez publishes new book titled

Prof. Alberto Martínez publishes new book titled "Kinematics: The Lost Origins of Einstein's Relativity"

In 1905 an unknown, third-class clerk at the Swiss patent office, Einstein, published a work that gradually became hailed as a replacement of Newton's scheme. Einstein presented his theory as an innovative "kinematics," a theory of motion.

Whereas various historians have studied the origins of Einstein's theory in relation to optics, electricity, and magnetism, none had analyzed its roots in the context of kinematics. Accordingly, Assistant Prof. Alberto Martínez has authored a history of this important but neglected science in a new book titled, Kinematics: The Lost Origins of Einstein's Relativity, published by Johns Hopkins University Press (July 2009).

Every student of science learns basic kinematics: the science of motion—it is common knowledge of all physicists; yet there existed no books on the history of kinematics proper, until now. Martínez explains that the book is the product of 15 years of research.

"By contrast to works that are thick on conjectures, I worked to assemble the most extensive collection of documentary sources and to compose a 'mosaic' account of Einstein's path to relativity," Martínez said. He traces how kinematics became the fundamental branch of physics, which arose from the now disreputable practice of making hierarchies of the sciences.

Physicists overcame an ancient prejudice against mechanical labor, to value engineers' analyses of motion instead of metaphysical abstractions. Others misconstrued kinematics as the pure geometry of motion, independent of experience. Mathematics and psychology pulled kinematics in divergent directions.

The science of motion, presumed to be the most mature branch of physics, had been grossly neglected and barely developed at all, including various vicious circularities. Some physicists even denounced its basic language, coordinate algebra, as being intensely artificial, serving to destroy intuition and retard progress in physics. With clear explanations and language accessible to laypersons, Martínez demonstrates that modern kinematics inherited old unresolved ambiguities.

This book has received advance praise. From the publisher's web page: "The chapters on Einstein form a compelling narrative as the author mines a rich vein of letters and later reminiscences, which make the book very accessible and of interest to many readers," wrote Daniel Kennefick of the Einstein Papers Project. And Scott Walter of the Poincaré Archives wrote, "Martínez's careful reconstruction of Einstein's path to relativity is an absolute tour de force!"

Alberto A. Martínez is an assistant professor in the Department of History. He is also the author of Negative Math: How Mathematical Rules Can Be Positively Bent (Princeton University Press, 2005).

He will be presenting a talk on his book at the UT History of Science Colloquium on Oct. 16, 2009 in GAR 1.102 from 12-2 p.m.

Related Links:
More info on Prof. Alberto A. Martínez
Martínez's personal website
More info on Kinematics at Johns Hopkins University Press website
Visit ShelfLife@Texas for more about Martínez's new book...

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