Sounds Like Light: Einstein's Theory of Special Relativity and Mach's Work in Acoustics and Aerodynamics

Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part B: Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics 29 (1):1-35 (1998)
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Ernst Mach is the only person whom Einstein included on both the list of physicists he considered his true precursors, and the list of the philosophers who had most affected him. Einstein scholars have been less generous in their estimation of Mach's contributions to Einstein's work, and even amongst the more generous of them, Mach's great achievements in physics are seldom mentioned in this context. This is odd, considering Mach was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Physics three times. In this paper, I examine some of Mach's work in physics that bears conceptually on Einstein's 1905 paper on Special Relativity ("On The Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies"). Mach was the first to give the correct explanation of the Doppler Effect, and he presented it in a way that Einstein echoes in his 1905 paper: laying out two apparently contradictory principles and showing how both can be retained. It is also notable that Mach's explanation was explicit about not relying on the existence of a medium of transmission for the propagation of light waves. In his work on supersonic shock waves, Mach invokes the constancy of the velocity of sound (i.e., its independence of the motion of the sound source) , just as he had invoked the constancy of the velocity of light in his work on the Doppler Effect for Light. I examine the analogies between light and sound that were drawn upon by Einstein and Mach, as well as one analogy that Einstein could have, but did not make: Cherenkov radiation, or "singing electrons", i.e., cases in which the sound of light in the medium of transmission is exceeded, which results in an optical analogue of supersonic shock waves



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Susan G. Sterrett
Wichita State University