Debating Relativity

November 30th, 2009

From Walter Isaacson's account of Einstein's 1921 visit to the United States:

After three weeks of lectures and receptions in New York, Einstein paid a visit to Washington. For reasons fathomable only to those who live in that city, the Senate decided to debate the theory of relativity. On the House side of the Capitol, Representative J.J. Kindred of New York proposed placing an explanation of Einstein's theories in the Congressional Record. David Walsh of Massachusetts rose to object. Did Kindred understand the theory? "I have been earnestly busy with this theory for three weeks," Kindred replied, "and am beginning to see some light." But what relevance, he was asked, did it have to the business of Congress? "It may bear upon the legislation of the future as to general relations with the cosmos."

Unfortunately, Isaacson doesn't say whether the motion to read an explanation of general relativity into the Congressional Record was passed. As yet I haven't found an online resource that allows me to search the Congressional Record as far back as 1921, so I still don't know whether Rep. Kindred's motion was passed.1

[Edited to add…] For the record, Isaacson's article is worth reading for much more than the comedic value inherent in the notion of politicians talking about relativity. It's a reminder of just how much of a public sensation Einstein was in his day. Who was the last scientist to have that sort of impact on the public imagination? Carl Sagan? Stephen Hawking? Richard Dawkins? Tim Berners-Lee?2

[Via Give Me Something To Read]

  1. I suppose it's just about possible that somewhere along the way Einstein's work might have been used as material in a filibuster, so perhaps it ended up in the Congressional Record by a different route. Or perhaps not: if I were a Senator or Representative intent on blocking the passage of some contentious piece of legislation, I think I'd pick an easier read…
  2. The latter probably should get something approaching that level of acclaim, albeit for the tool he created and gave away rather than for any grand scientific theory.

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