Physics Colloquium : "Minkowski, Relativity and Einstein's Changing Attitudes to Mathematics"

Date: 
Mon, 04/11/2019 - 12:00 to 13:30

Location: 
Levin building, Lecture Hall No. 8
Lecturer: Leo Corry - Tel Aviv University
Abstract:
Two years after Einstein’s relativity paper of 1905, Hermann Minkowski (1864-1909)
undertook the reformulation of the new theory in mathematical terms that were to
become its standard language, and that allowed its further development. Einstein’s initial
attitude towards Minkowski’s approach was rather unsympathetic, and it reflected a more
general attitude of him towards mathematics and its role in physics. Still, it was not long
before Einstein realized that this formulation was essential to his own attempts to
generalize the theory so as to cover gravitation and arbitrarily accelerated systems of
reference.
Minkowski was a prominent mathematician, known mainly for his contributions to
number theory. He had arrived in Göttingen in 1902, where he reunited with David
Hilbert, an old fellow student from his Königsberg days, and now one of the world-
leading mathematicians. Their renewed collaboration contemplated a very broad study of
current research in many fields of mathematics as well as of physics, and a program for
further developing Göttingen into a world-class institution for the exacts sciences, and
into a hotbed of scientific ideas that would continue to attract gifted students from all
over the world.
Minkowski came to the study of Einstein’s early papers on relativity as part of this very
ambitious and far-reaching program. In the years immediately preceding his own
contributions, Minkowski studied in detail, in collaboration with Hilbert and other
Göttingen colleagues and students, many of the most important, recent works on
electrodynamics and the theory of the electron, including those of Lorentz, Poincaré,
Schwarzschild and Abraham.
This lecture will survey the general background to Minkowski’s incursion into relativity,
of which Einstein’s work represented just one side, and in which the rich and complex
interaction between mathematics and physics in Göttingen since the turn of the twentieth
century played a decisive role. At the same time, it will illuminate the changing relations
of Einstein to mathematics, in the wake of Minkowski’s work, and his willingness to
attribute increasing significance to mathematical formalism in developing physical
theories.