Matterless Motion Wins Again

This is a review of "E=mc2: A biography of the world's most famous equation" by David Bodanis, Walker & Company, NY, 2000, 337 p.

If you are looking for the real biography of E=mc2 , this isn't it. If you are looking for the usual glorification of Einstein and cohorts, this will do. In tune with the second objective rather than the first, there is the usual absence of the long history of the equation, which stems from Newton's implication that matter and the motion of matter somehow were related. Hegel's dictum on inseparability ("Just as there is no motion without matter, so there is no matter without motion") is nowhere to be found. And like Einstein's 1905 paper, there is little or no mention of those, such as Preston, Poincaré, and De Pretto, who were important in the development of the equation. Like Einstein, Bodanis completely omits Hasenöhrl's work, which was published in the same journal a year earlier, with a very similar equation (m = (8/3)E/c2 ) and a very similar title ("On the radiation of the bodies in motion" vs. Einstein's "On the electrodynamics of the bodies in motion"). Like most modern physicists and cosmologists, Bodanis perpetuates the conception that matter can, with a wave of the magic wand, turn into "pure energy." One never finds out exactly what that "pure energy" is supposed to be. The fact is, that the equation merely describes the conversion of one type of the motion of matter into another type of the motion of matter. This can be done with the use of classical mechanics simply by assuming that the supposed "empty space" of Einstein contains matter capable of receiving motion released from the atom during fission or fusion. Einstein's premature rejection of the ether therefore gave scientific credence to the idea of "matterless motion," an oxymoron near and dear to the hearts and "souls" of the religiously trained and mystically inclined populace. With that background, Einstein could speculate that space was nevertheless "curved" even though it supposedly contained nothing at all. The speculation has continued to be evermore rampant and ridiculous, with the whole universe supposedly exploding out of nothing, 13 dimensional "strings," and the equally oxymoronic parallel and multi-universes. On the plus side, Bodanis has some interesting gossip about the physics establishment before and after 1905. He tries better than most to give credit for the women, such as du Chatelet, who made significant, mostly unheralded contributions mostly to the scientific end of things. I didn't mind the advertised dumbed-down aspect of the book so much as the fact that we never really found out what it was that matter was turning into. Bodanis fell for the indeterministic "pure energy" propaganda hook line and sinker. Penance for writing this book should include repeating Hegel's most important assumption out loud 100 times: "Just as there is no motion without matter, so there is no matter without motion," "Just as there is no motion without matter, so there is no matter without motion”…


Anonymous said...

But let us not forget that Hegel was a pantheist and an idealist. Almost without doubt, he also believed in a Freewill (let's make it one word, shall we?). In fact, between Hegel and Einstein, surely Einstein would have views closer to yours (not merely scientifically, but also philosophically).

Einstein may have posited "motion without corpuscular matter." But don't confuse what is impalpable with the metaphysical meaning of "matter," which is anything that is not "spirit." Thus, even empty space falls under "matter" (unless the writer is suggesting that empty space is conscious). Surely, Einstein would have said that space IS matter (at least if was being philosophically exact).

Glenn Borchardt said...

You have nicely pointed out that almost any philosopher can be correct once in awhile. Hegel was one of the better known dualists, thus making it easier for him to make such an important deterministic statement about matter and its motion. The universe consists only of matter in motion. There is nothing else. "Spirit" is simply the motion of matter and thus is not "part" of the universe. It is what those parts do. Einstein's major mistake was positing matterless motion, which was a major regressive philosophical move that has been detrimental to physics ever since. On this subject, the dualist Hegel was far more progressive than the dualist Einstein.

cee stephens said...

After stumbling across this post I'm interested in your book but a little confused about some things. You are right to note that stressing the interdependence and inseperability of concepts is a Hegelian (and Anti-Kantian) theme. Kant relied on a Newtonian worldview when he treated space and time as seperate and independent realities. Hegel, like Einstein, instead proposed that space and time must be treated together as one thing, because Hegel said that about just about every philosophical dualism.

Two Questions

1. What on earth do you mean when you call Hegel a dualist?

2. In your work do you discuss Hegel in any detail? And for that matter, any interest in the work of classical pragmatists like Peirce or Dewey?

Thanks, C.

Glenn Borchardt said...


Thanks for your interest. I have only a short paragraph on Hegel (p.19-20). He is generally considered by most philosophers as being a dualist. His "objective idealism" considers "spirit" as being independent of matter, with the evolution of matter occurring in tune with a grand universal spirit. I consider all phenomena heretofore considered as manifestations of "spirit" simply as the motions of matter. Hegel would have done better to hold to his dictum on inseparability. I mention Hegel about 11 times in the book (see Amazon's Inside the Book feature). I give similar short shrift to the pragmatists, simply because their work uses the indeterministic assumptions that I no longer believe in.

The key is that I assume that motion is not a thing, but what things do. Time is motion, not a thing. That is why motion cannot be a dimension, in spite of what Einstein and other idealists say.

Hope you enjoy the book. The assumptions are all upfront and the whole thing fits together nicely.

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