Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Einstein in new contexts

Many students who discover, for the first time, the way that a concept’s meaning can subtly change from one context to the next, are so taken with this that they jump to the relativistic conclusion, namely, that new contexts change a concept in such a manner that, in the new context, it is incomparably different in meaning from the context where it first appeared. Against this, Derrida (1982: Signature event context, in Margins of Philosophy, Trans. Bass, A. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp 307-330) has argued that contexts are “unsaturable” in the sense that their meaning cannot, once and for all, be determined or “closed-off”, without subsequent developments impacting on them in a complexifying manner. This does not mean, as many of Derrida’s detractors believe, that he denies the possibility of arriving at meaningful interpretations, but it does imply that, to arrive at a responsible interpretation, one often has to follow the links of inscription and re-inscription of concepts rather scrupulously to uncover the complex, meaning-altering connections between one context and the next.

The manner in which newly established, but “unsaturable” contexts are continually re-inscribed in new, equally unsaturable contexts, where their initial meaning is both preserved and changed in the manner of a quasi-Hegelian “Aufhebung” (“quasi-“, because there is never any question of teleological progress towards any final, all-encompassing synthesis), is strikingly demonstrated by events in the subsequent theoretical history of Einstein’s famous equation at the heart of his special theory, namely E=mc squared.

Einstein had already upset the theoretical physics-applecart by positing an equivalence between energy and mass multiplied by the colossal figure of the speed of light squared (Bodanis, 2001: E=mc2). But not long afterwards, he himself was led to re-inscribe this formula in a more encompassing field – that of “general” relativity – as a result, it seems to me, of some further lateral thinking on his part concerning the implications of his formula regarding gravity and the behaviour of light. It had been well-known in physics that light has no mass or weight (Coles, 2000: Einstein and the Birth of Big Science, Cambridge: Icon Books), but consists of photons (conceived of as “pure” energy), in the language of physics. But if there is an equivalence between energy and mass (multiplied by c squared), then one might expect to find that light, too, behaved like ordinary, “massive” bodies in fields of gravity.

This thought is linked to the insight, in physicist Bodanis’s words (2001: 205), ” … that the more mass or energy there was at any one spot, the more that space and time would be curved tight around it”. In Newton’s physics, and even in Einstein’s special theory, light was thought of as proceeding along straight lines, but if space and time were to curve under the influence of mass or energy (these being equivalent), then light could be expected to curve as well. These considerations resulted in Einstein’s formulation of his more complex general theory of relativity in 1915, in which E=mc squared was inscribed in relation to other components. Bodanis explains (2001: 205-206):

“The equation that summarises this has great simplicity, curiously reminiscent of the simplicity of E=mc2. In E=mc2, there’s an energy realm on one side, a mass realm on the other, and the bridge of the “=” linking them. E=mc2 is, at heart, the assertion that Energy = mass. In Einstein’s new, wider theory, the points that are covered deal with the way that all of “energy-mass” in an area is associated with all of “space-time” nearby, or, symbolically, the way that Energy-mass = space-time. The “E” and the “m” of E=mc2 are now just items to go on one side of this deeper equation.”

What one witnesses here is the curious “logic” of lifting a signifier (in this case a composite one, namely E=mc squared) from one context and “grafting” it onto another: it remains the same AND simultaneously changes through being inscribed in a new context. Without retaining the meaning that it has in the special theory, it could not be fruitfully transposed to the wider context of the general theory of relativity, but at the same time, by being related to space-time, as well as the gravity and acceleration of the “real” physical world (instead of the conditions of pure theory and thought of the special theory), it also changes by being enriched by and enriching those concepts together with which it has been woven into a new, more complex chain of meanings.

Needless to say, like all scientific theories, Einstein’s new, general theory required confirmation through testing – it had to be “falsifiable”, in Popper’s terms, even if it were confirmed in the end. How this happened, and who was involved, is fairly well-known; suffice it to say that it entailed testing the theory in terms of the prediction that light would be curved by passing close to a massive body such as the sun – something that could only be done by measuring the deviation, if any, of the light indicating the positions of distant stars in relation to the sun (which could, for obvious reasons, only be done during a solar eclipse) from their positions at night.

But Einstein’s theory was, and has since been confirmed on many occasions; the important point for my present purposes being that this inscribed the signifier “Einstein”, as well as that of “relativity” and of E=mc squared yet again in a new context, because, as Bodanis (2001: 213-217) and Coles (2000: 56-61) both show, without the spectacular media-communication of the confirmation of his theory’s “prediction” that light would be found to “curve” around the sun, Einstein’s name, as well as the term “relativity”, would not have become household words. Again, grafting these signifiers onto new (historical) contexts, their meanings have been amplified by paradoxically remaining the “same” and changing.

Moreover, the “sliding of the signifier”, E=mc squared, along various chains of signification did not end there, nor does one have any reason to suspect that it will ever stop its historical and/or theoretical sliding or drifting. I shall mention only four more such instances of grafting E=mc squared onto new contexts. First, Cecilia Payne’s “discovery”, through her reflections on E=mc squared in the 1920s, that (contrary to what physicists believed until then), the sun does not consist largely of iron, but its colossal energy-output is due to its predominant hydrogen mass; second, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar’s discovery, through similar reflections, that about 6 billion years from now, the sun and all the planets in our solar system, will end in fire and ice when the final energy-outbursts of our sun will occur; and third, Fred Hoyle’s lateral use of E=mc squared, together with the notion of implosion, in the 1940s to solve the tantalising riddle of the origin of life through the creation of carbon, oxygen, iron, and so on by imploding and exploding stars.

Ironically – the fourth instance of re-contextualising Einstein’s fecund formula – Hoyle’s creative reflections on the link between E=mc squared and the origin of life had as their point of departure his awareness of the formula’s integral importance in the development of an atom bomb (a source of death on unprecedented scale) in America’s so-called Manhattan Project. Without the theoretical implications of E=mc squared the atom bomb would be unthinkable. It is not possible to recount all the stages and dramatic events of the race between Germany – with none other than Werner Heisenberg leading the Nazi project – and America here (Bodanis, 2001: 93-169); the point is that E=mc squared has been inscribed in meaning-preserving and meaning-modifying contexts of the most diverse kinds imaginable, on the spectrum stretching from life to mega-death, without ever reaching “context saturation-point”.

This is a modified excerpt from my paper, “The contemporary context of relativity and relativism”, reprinted in Philosophy and Psychoanalytic Theory, Peter Lang Publishers, 2009.

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