Figures of Light in the Early History of Relativity

In David E. Rowe, Tilman Sauer & Scott A. Walter (eds.), Beyond Einstein: Perspectives on Geometry, Gravitation, and Cosmology in the Twentieth Century. New York, USA: Springer New York. pp. 3-50 (2018)
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Albert Einstein’s bold assertion of the form invariance of the equation of a spherical light wave with respect to inertial frames of reference became, in the space of 6 years, the preferred foundation of his theory of relativity. Early on, however, Einstein’s universal light-sphere invariance was challenged on epistemological grounds by Henri Poincaré, who promoted an alternative demonstration of the foundations of relativity theory based on the notion of a light ellipsoid. A third figure of light, Hermann Minkowski’s lightcone also provided a new means of envisioning the foundations of relativity. Drawing in part on archival sources, this paper shows how an informal, international group of physicists, mathematicians, and engineers, including Einstein, Paul Langevin, Poincaré, Hermann Minkowski, Ebenezer Cunningham, Harry Bateman, Otto Berg, Max Planck, Max von Laue, A. A. Robb, and Ludwig Silberstein, employed figures of light during the formative years of relativity theory in their discovery of the salient features of the relativistic worldview.

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Scott A. Walter
Nantes University

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