Remembering Fukushima

by Timothy Jorgensen

The human cost in terms of death and suffering, from the Japanese earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, was immense. The death toll was over 15,900, with an additional 2,600 missing and presumed dead. In addition, 340,000 people were displaced from their homes.

The recovery effort continues but there is a long way to go, and many people are still not able to return to their normal lives—yet another form of suffering. The large numbers of displaced people present a huge public health challenge for the Japanese government with no clear end in sight. On top of that, radioactivity that was released from the compromised nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant continues to thwart efforts to achieve full recovery. The local environment is still contaminated with radioactivity, and radioactivity stored on the plant grounds still threatens to taint groundwater.

Now that the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami has run its course, people are anxious to return home and resume their lives. But a major concern is whether it is safe to return to areas with radioactive contamination, particularly in light of the reality that radiation levels will not be soon returning to the low background levels that existed prior to the accident.

The Japanese government has set a radiation mitigation goal of 20 mSv per year as the maximum annual dose allowable for returning evacuees. Prior to the accident, 1 mSv per year had been the dose limit for the public—a limit that is no longer sustainable if the region is ever to be reinhabited. The Fukushima evacuees now need to decide for themselves whether the government’s new 20 mSv per year dose limit presents a personal risk level that is acceptable. It is an important decision because, one way or another, how they decide will have a huge impact on how the rest of their lives unfold.

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CC image courtesy of greensefa on flickr

As I describe in my book, Strange Glow: The Story of Radiation, we have over a century of experience with human exposures to man-made radiation, and that experience has taught us much about the health risks at various radiation dose levels. These data on human exposures suggest that 20 mSv of dose represents a lifetime risk of a fatal cancer of about 1 in 1,000. Stated another way, if 1,000 people lived in a radiation-contaminated area for one year and received this level of dose during their stay, we might expect one of them to come down with a fatal cancer at some point in their remaining lifetime due to that radiation exposure. Meanwhile, as many as 250 of those same 1,000 people would be expected to sustain a fatal cancer as some point during their life from non-radiation causes because, unfortunately, cancer is a common disease.

So compared to people living elsewhere in Japan, the cancer rate for the returning Fukushima residents would raise from a baseline of 250 out of 1,000, up to 251 out of 1,000, during their first year of rehabitation. Each additional year of residence at 20 mSv per year would increase the lifetime cancer risk level by one additional victim per 1,000. So two years of 20-mSv exposure would result in 252 cancers out of 1,000, compared to the 250 out of 1,000 risk level in uncontaminated areas.

It must be understood that these numbers are just approximations of the cancer risks. But they are good approximations backed up by a century of health experience with human radiation exposures, including atomic bomb victims, nuclear fallout victims, and people exposed to medical radiation procedures. They may not be very precise estimates, but they are definitely in the ballpark for the true level of cancer risk from radiation.

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CC image courtesy of thlerry ehrmann

Now, knowing the risk of cancer associated with returning, what are the risks of not returning. Well, that will depend more upon the exact personal circumstances of affected individuals with no two people having the same types of risks. Beyond various health risks, there will be a spectrum of both social and financial risks associated with either returning or not returning that must be considered. None of those disparate risk estimates will be anywhere near as reliable as the cancer risk levels that we have just projected. The cancer risks are just one aspect of the risk/benefit analysis that each evacuee must make. But, for all their imperfections, the cancer risk estimates are the most accurate part of that analysis.

Whether to return to contaminated communities is a hard decision, but all intelligent people are capable of making such a decision about their own health and wellbeing, and they have the right to do so, as long as they have access to credible and intelligible information regarding the risks involved. And it’s actually good that people make their own decisions and not rely on government agencies to make decisions on their behalf because only they, and not the government, know exactly what uniquely personal and individual interests they have at stake.

Strange GlowTimothy J. Jorgensen is author of Strange Glow: The Story of Radiation. He is associate professor of radiation medicine and director of the Health Physics and Radiation Protection Graduate Program at Georgetown University. He lives with his family in Rockville, Maryland.

Presenting the new book trailer for Strange Glow: The Story of Radiation

Five years ago on March 12, following a devastating tsunami, Fukushima Prefecture in Japan experienced the largest release of radioactive materials since the infamous nuclear meltdown in Chernobyl 30 years before. The world, understandably, was braced for the worst. But molecular radiation biologist Tim Jorgensen, author of Strange Glow: The Story of Radiation says this accident was no Chernobyl. The levels measured at Fukushima after the meltdown aren’t much higher than the annual background levels that already existed—a fact that does little to allay fears for many. How much then, do we really know about radiation and its actual dangers? Though radiation is used in everything from x-rays to cell phones, much of the population still has what Jorgensen considers an uninformed aversion to any type of exposure. In this fascinating scientific history, he describes mankind’s extraordinary, often fraught relationship with radiation.

We are pleased to present the new book trailer for Strange Glow:

Conversations on Climate: How geoengineering has been used in the past

PlanetIn The Planet Remade, Oliver Morton argues that geoengineering, the process by which Earth’s systems are manipulated, can be used in a positive way to address the problems caused by man-made climate change. Geoengineering is nothing new. Chapter 7 of The Planet Remade describes how it was used in the twentieth century to feed a growing population. A summary:

At the end of the nineteenth century it became apparent that the yield of wheat would soon fall short of the demand. Sir William Crookes, one of the leading chemists of the time, gave a speech in 1898 on the subject. The number of people who wanted to eat wheat was increasing, but by that point there was no more land on which to grow it. The solution? Increasing the amount of nitrogen in the soil to increase the amount of wheat that a given parcel of land could yield. If this wasn’t done, Crookes warned, the world would face starvation.

Nitrogen was fixed on as the key to a solution because it is a necessary component of photosynthesis. It exists in the air we breathe in the inert form of two identical atoms attached to one another. In order to aid in sustaining life, it must be detached and fixed to some other element. This happens when bacteria in plants twist nitrogen molecules and insert hydrogen molecules into the resulting spaces, turning the nitrogen into ammonia. Later, the nitrogen is returned to its inert form. The process by which nitrogen is fixed and then unfixed makes up the nitrogen cycle. As this process has proceeded uninterrupted by humans for billions of years, it has been one component in supporting increasingly more complex life forms on Earth.

Crookes was hopeful that the problem could be solved. He called on scientists to figure out a way to fix nitrogen industrially. Fritz Haber, a professor at the University of Freiburg, rose to the challenge. He and his laboratory technicians created a process by which fixed nitrogen was created by passing a continuous stream of nitrogen and hydrogen over a hot catalyst at very high pressure. His colleague Carl Bosch scaled the process up so that it could be used on an industrial scale. The process was quickly adopted globally to produce more food. By the end of the 1960s, the amount of nitrogen fixed by the Haber-Bosch process exceeded that fixed by all the microbes in the world’s soil. Both men won the Nobel Prize for their efforts. Their discoveries have had profound implications beyond the world of agriculture.

The problem identified by Crookes had been solved, but at a cost. One cost can be seen in the Gulf of Mexico every summer. Between the 1960s and 1990s, the flow of nitrogen out of America’s heartland, through the Mississippi and into the Gulf has doubled. This abundant supply of nitrogen makes ideal food for photosynthetic algae to flourish, resulting in colossal algal blooms. As they decompose, they consume all the oxygen in the water, leaving none to support other life forms. As a result, large swaths of the Gulf of Mexico become dead zones every summer.

Does this episode in history prove that humans can’t be trusted with geoengineering? Or can it be used more responsibly in the future to address the challenge of climate change? To answer that question, check out The Planet Remade here.

The Final Days of Albert Einstein

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Albert Einstein’s time on earth ended on April 18, 1955, at the Princeton Hospital.

In April of 1955, shortly after Einstein’s death, a pathologist removed his brain without the permission of his family, and stored it in formaldehyde until around 2007, shortly before dying himself. In that time, the brain of the man who has been credited with the some of the most beautiful and imaginative ideas in all of science was photographed, fragmented —small sections parceled to various researchers. His eyes were given to his ophthalmologist.

These indignities in the name of science netted several so-called findings—that the inferior parietal lobe, the part said to be responsible for mathematical reasoning was wider, that the unique makeup of the Sulvian fissure could have allowed more neurons to make connections. And yet, there remains the sense that no differences can truly account for the cognitive abilities that made his genius so striking.

Along with an exhaustive amount of information on  the personal, scientific, and public spheres of Einstein’s life, An Einstein Encyclopedia includes this well-known if macabre “brain in a jar” story. But there is a quieter one that is far more revealing of the man himself: The story in which Helen Dukas, Einstein’s longtime secretary and companion, recounts his last days. Dukas, the encyclopedia notes, was “well known for being intelligent, modest, shy, and passionately loyal to Einstein.” Her account is at once unsensational and unadorned.

One might expect a story of encroaching death, however restrained, to chronicle confusion and fear. Medically supported death was a regular occurrence by the middle of the 20th century, and Einstein died in his local hospital. But what is immediately striking from the account is the simplicity and calmness with which Einstein met his own passing, which he regarded as a natural event. The telling of this chapter is matter of fact, from his collapse at home, to his diagnosis with a hemorrhage, to his reluctant trip to the hospital and refusal of a famous heart surgeon. Dukas writes that he endured the pain from an internal hemorrhage (“the worst pain one can have”) with a smile, occasionally taking morphine. On his final day, during a respite from pain, he read the paper and talked about politics and scientific matters.

“You’re really hysterical—I have to pass on sometime, and it doesn’t really matter when.” he tells Dukas, when she rises in the night to check on him.

As Mary Talbot  writes in Aeon, “Apprehending the truth that all things arise and pass away might be the ultimate groundwork for dying.” And certainly, it would be difficult to dispute Einstein’s wholehearted dedication to the truth throughout his life and work. His manifesto, referenced here by Hanoch Gutfreund on the occasion of the opening of the Hebrew University, asserts, “Science and investigation recognize as their aim the truth only.” From passionate debates on the nature of reality with Bohr, to his historic clash on the nature of time with Bergson, Einstein’s quest for the truth was a constant in his life.  It would seem that it was equally so at the time of his death. What, then, did he believe at the end? We can’t know, but An Einstein Encyclopedia opens with his own words,

Strange is our situation here upon earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to divine a purpose….To ponder interminably over the reason for one’s own existence or the meaning of life in general seems to me, from an objective point of view, to be sheer folly. And yet everyone holds certain ideals by which he guides his aspiration and his judgment. The ideals which have always shone before me and filled me with the joy of living are goodness, beauty, and truth. To make a goal of comfort or happiness has never appealed to me; a system of ethics built on this basis would be sufficient only for a herd of cattle.

Read a sample chapter of An Einstein Encyclopedia, by Alice Calaprice, Daniel Kennefick, & Robert Schulmann here.

Feynman on the historic debate between Einstein & Bohr

The golden age of quantum theory put many of the greatest minds of the 20th century in contact with some of the most significant scientific and philosophical questions of their era. But it also put these minds in contact with one another in ways that have themselves been a source of curiosity and ongoing scientific debate.

Richard Feynman and Albert Einstein, two towering geniuses of their time, were both as revered for their scientific contributions as they were beloved for their bursts of wisdom on a wide range of subjects. It’s hard not to wonder just what these men thought of one another. Princeton University Press, which published The Ultimate Quotable Einstein in 2010 publishes The Quotable Feynman this fall. The book includes reflections by Feynman on Einstein, from his memorable mannerisms to his contributions to some of the most heated debates in 20th century science.Feynman quote

Perhaps because of the gap between their career high points, (Einstein died in 1955; Feynman didn’t receive his Nobel Prize until 1965), there are no verified quotes where Einstein alludes to Feynman or his expansive body of work. But Feynman had made observations on the older physicist, several of which revolve around Einstein’s famous 1927 public debate with Niels Bohr on the correctness of  quantum mechanics. Central to the debate was this question: Were electrons, light, and similar entities waves or particles? In some experiments they behaved like the former, and in others, the latter.

In an attempt to resolve the contradictory observations, Einstein proposed a series of “thought experiments”, which Bohr responded to. Bohr essentially took the stance that the very act of measuring alters reality, whereas Einstein insisted that reality exists, independent of the act of measurement. Key to the philosophy of science, the dispute between the two giants is detailed by Bohr in “Discussions with Einstein on Epistemological Problems in Atomic Physics”. Richard Feynman is quoted as commenting on the debate:Feynman quote 2

An Einstein Encyclopedia contains a section on the Einstein-Bohr debates, as well as a wealth of other information on Einstein’s career, family, friends. There is an entire section dedicated to righting the various misconceptions that swirl around the man, and another on his romantic interests (actual, probable, and possible).

In spite of their differences, Bohr and Einstein were friends and shared great respect for each others’ work. Until Einstein’s death 3 decades later, they continued their debates, which became, in essence, a debate about the nature of reality itself.  feynman quote 3

Check out other new Einstein publications this fall, including:

Relativity
An Einstein Encyclopedia
The Road to Relativity

Five Days in August — remembering the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

On August 6 and 9, 1945, 70 years ago this week, the terrifying images of mushroom clouds rising over devastated cities were seared into the public consciousness. Atomic bombs, the result of an unprecedented collaboration between some of the greatest scientific minds of their generation, had decimated the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed instantly, and in the days and months that followed, thousands more would suffer and die from radiation sickness and burns. The shocking display of military power and the vast human toll was unlike anything the world had seen. Whatever “nuclear” meant prior to August 6, it entered the lexicon that day as a term synonymous with uncontrolled destruction.

Five Days in AugustMost Americans believe that the Second World War ended because the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan forced it to surrender. But according to Michael Gordin’s  Five Days in August, (now available in e-book), the allied military did not clearly understand the atomic bomb’s revolutionary strategic potential. In fact, they were unsure whether the bombs would explode at all. But in the wake of the blasts and unparalleled ruin that did in fact occur, in the minds of many, physics became the science of war.

An interesting Princeton University Press historical note from Nature.com:

On the evening of 11 August 1945, just two days after the bombing of Nagasaki, the US government released Smyth’s 200-page document under the ponderous title, ‘A General Account of Methods of Using Atomic Energy for Military Purposes under the Auspices of the United States Government, 1940–1945’. Quickly dubbed ‘the Smyth report’, copies flew off the shelves. The original Government Printing Office edition ran out so quickly that Princeton University Press published its own edition late in 1945, under the more manageable title, Atomic Energy for Military Purposes, which sold more than 100,000 copies in a year.

The information contained in the Smyth report was heavily restricted for security reasons. But in a post-war and early cold war climate, atomic secrets were a hot commodity. Even today without the apocalyptic dread of The Day After, nuclear power remains a political and military preoccupation, as nations face the threat of terrorism, the problem of waste, and the danger of meltdown.

Gordin writes in Five Days in August, “Each generation has grappled intensely and repeatedly with understanding the implications of nuclearism for its future, but the struggle has always been caught  in terms fixed, as if in amber, with the speed and suddenness with which World War II ended.” For more on the moral questions left in the wake of these five days, and a look at the confused final months of World War II, sample Chapter 1, titled Endings, here.

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity, Princeton University Press launches books by Hanoch Gutfreund and Jürgen Renn

The Road to RelativityOn July 15th, Princeton University Press proudly launched two books by Professor Hanoch Gutfreund and Jürgen Renn, Relativity and The Road to Relativity, at the 14th Marcel Grossman meeting on relativistic physics in Rome.

The two books are being published to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein’s formulation of the theory of general relativity in 1915, and so it was fitting to launch them at a conference that demonstrates the ongoing influence of Einstein’s theory on cutting edge work on black holes, pulsars, quantum gravity, and other areas fundamental to our understanding of the universe.

The launch took place at the Besso Foundation, the family home of Albert Einstein’s friend and colleague, Michele Besso, during an exhibition, organized by Professor Gutfreund, of original Einstein letters and notebooks from the Albert Einstein Archives at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

relativity jacketMore than 150 distinguished physicists and invited guests, including the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Riccardo di Segni, and members of the Besso and Grossman families, listened to Professor Gutfreund and Professor Renn provide a compelling overview of their research and of the new insights it has brought to the history of the development of general relativity. Professor Gutfreund stressed the fundamental insights into Einstein’s work provided by the rich Archives in Jerusalem, while Renn dismissed the notion of Albert Einstein as an isolated and idiosyncratic genius, stressing his network of collaborators and colleagues, including Besso.

 

Renn and Gutfreund

Professor Hanoch Gutfreund and Jürgen Renn at the book launch in Rome

Photo from Renn and Gutfreund launch

Launch for Relativity and The Road to Relativity, at the 14th Marcel Grossman meeting on relativistic physics in Rome

 

Happy Birthday to Nikola Tesla

j9941Nikola Tesla was born on this day in 1856. Here are 10 facts from Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age by W. Bernard Carlson:

1. Tesla has two meanings in Serbian: it can refer to a small ax called an adze or to a person with protruding teeth, a common characteristic of people in Nikola Tesla’s family.

2. The night Tesla was born there was a severe thunderstorm. The fearful midwife said, “He’ll be a child of the storm.” His mother responded, “No, of light.”

3. Initially Tesla wanted to be a teacher, but he switched to engineering in his second year at Joanneum Polytechnic School in order to work on building a spark-free motor.

4. One of his favorite hobbies was card-playing and gambling. “To sit down to a game of cards, was for me the quintessence of pleasure.”

5. When Tesla came to New York for the first time after living in Prague, Budapest, and Paris, he was shocked by the crudeness and vulgarity of Americans.

6. In 1886, Tesla was abandoned by his business partners and could not find work—he took a job digging ditches to get by. A patent he filed that year for thermomagnetic motor helped him get back on his feet.

7. In April of 1887, he formed the Tesla Electric Company with his two business partners, Alfred S. Brown and Charles F. Peck. His first lab was located in New York’s financial district.

8. Mark Twain was a good friend of Tesla’s.

9. Tesla suffered from periodic bouts of depression. He treated it by administering electroshock therapy to himself.

10. Tesla told a reporter that he did not want to marry because he thought it would compromise his work. He did not have any known relationships with women.

If you would like to learn more, you can preview the introduction of Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age.

Jurassic World Giveaway

In honor of today’s release of Jurassic World, the much anticipated-sequel to Jurassic Park, we’re giving away a special ‘prehistoric package’ of three books to three lucky winners!

They are:

How to Clone a Mammoth by Beth Shapiro

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Shapiro spoke to The Telegraph recently on the science of de-extinction and how it can be used to save animals that are endangered today, possibly in Pleistocene Park, a real-life Jurassic Park in Siberia. To learn more, you can loop back to this post.

 

 

 

The First Fossil Hunters by Adrienne Mayor

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In The First Fossil Hunters, Mayor shows us that many mythological creatures of the past, including Griffins, Cyclopses, Monsters, and Giants, are in fact based on creatures that used to exist. The ancients knew that different creatures once inhabited the earth, and they came up with sophisticated theories to explain the fossils they found. These first paleontologists are studied in detail in Mayor’s book.

 

 

 

What Bugged the Dinosaurs by George Poinar & Roberta Poinar

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Today, we think of the T. Rex as the most ferocious carnivore of the Cretaceous period. However, the Poinars, whose research inspired Jurassic Park, show us that many insects of the time could be just as deadly and that they played a significant role in the demise of the dinosaurs.

 

 

 

To enter, please follow the directions in the box below. The entry period ends June 25, 2015.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Q&A with Scott L. Montgomery & Daniel Chirot, authors of The Shape of the New: Four Big Ideas and How They Made the Modern World

Scott L. Montgomery and Daniel Chirot, both of the University of Washington, recently sat down for a Q&A on their new book, The Shape of the New: Four Big Ideas and How They Made the Modern World. Read on to learn what these four Enlightenment ideas are, and why they remain so important to the understanding of the ideological and political conflicts of our own time.

The Shape of the New jacketWhy are ideas so important to the history of the modern world and also to understanding so much of the contemporary world?

Many of our social, cultural, and political perceptions have been shaped by big ideas first argued by long dead intellectuals.  For example, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton’s argument on the shape of democracy more than 200 years ago continues to play out today in American debates over the size and scope and purpose of government.

Why use the term ‘ideas’ rather than ideology?

Ideology refers largely to already fixed, hardened positions about certain policy choices. The ideas we cover were much broader.  The leading intellectuals who developed them understood many of the conflicting arguments and knew they had to argue their positions in order to have any lasting influence.

What are the “Four Big Ideas” of the title, and why do you focus on them?

Our focus is not on single concepts but entire systems of thought that have affected every level of social experience. Adam Smith wrote about the freedom that individuals must have to decide their material and moral lives and that, if attained, would create the most efficient, prosperous, and free society. Marx spoke of universal equality for humanity, a just and egalitarian world that would arrive due to scientific laws governing history. Darwin took evolution and turned it into a scientific theory of enormous force:  with natural selection as its main mechanism, it gave all life a secular history and human beings a new context liberated from ancient traditions of religious purpose and final principles. Finally, modern democracy gained its first major success through the founders of the United States, most notably Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, two brilliant but flawed men whose fierce debates set down essential patterns for how to imagine and institutionalize this new political system that has spread throughout large portions of the world.

You seem to suggest that the most powerful ideas have come from the Enlightenment and mainly from areas like political philosophy, economics, and theories of society or history? Is this correct?

Yes, partly but not political, economic, and social thought alone. Ideas of vital, even extraordinary influence also emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries from the sciences and from religious thought, as shown in our discussion of Darwin and religious fundamentalism in Christianity and Islam. Other domains of thought, such as art and literature, played major roles in the shaping and movement of key ideas.

What are some examples of what you call the “Counter Enlightenment”?

Some hostility came from organized religions that resisted the Enlightenment’s defense of freedom of thought and skepticism about fixed dogma. Much also came from elites opposed to democratization and increased freedom for everyone.  This Counter-Enlightenment has never gone away. Fascism and communism were based on powerful ideas that rejected much of the Enlightenment. Religious opposition remains in some fervent Christian denominations and  in radical Islam there remains bitter hostility to much of modern science and to any questioning of holy texts and authority. Rather than witnessing the continuing expansion of democracy and greater individual freedom that seemed to characterize the late 20th century, some governments, not least China and Russia, reject that side of the Enlightenment and propose instead illiberal forms of autocracy as better alternatives.

What does this have to do with the humanities and social sciences?

We strongly feel that college and university education no longer insists enough on the importance of teaching the ideas on which free, dynamic societies are based. To resist the paranoia about threats coming from all sorts of poorly understood sources we have to reaffirm the importance of the great ideas that shaped so much that we value, and make it known how those ideas were used to combat ignorance and opposition to freedom. Ultimately it is imperative that we understand the ideas that oppose what we value so that we are better equipped to fight against them.

Scott L. Montgomery is an affiliate faculty member in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. His books include Does Science Need a Global Language?: English and the Future of Research. Daniel Chirot is the Herbert J. Ellison Professor of Russian and Eurasian Studies at the University of Washington. His books include Why Not Kill Them All?: The Logic and Prevention of Mass Political Murder (Princeton). They both live in Seattle.

History & Philosophy of Science 2015 Catalog

Our History & Philosophy of Science 2015 catalog is now available.

Be sure to check out The Quotable Feynman, a collection of about 500 quotations from Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard P. Feynman (1918-88), compiled by his daughter, Michelle Feynman. Read it cover-to-cover or flip to a specific section, from childhood to religion, from family to politics.

Looking for a comprehensive and authoritative guide to everything Albert Einstein? An Einstein Encyclopedia is your indispensible resource. The book contains entries on a range of topics, including his romantic relationships, hobbies, educational affiliations, and friends. Written by three leading Einstein scholars, researchers and those with a casual curiosity alike will find much to interest them. And don’t forget to scroll to page 3 of the catalog for a wealth of additional Einstein-related titles, including Relativity: 100th Anniversary Edition and Einstein and the Quantum.

Finally, the richly illustrated Mathematics and Art is written by Lynn Gamwell, a cultural historian of both topics. Gamwell shows how mathematics and art have informed and influenced one another from antiquity to the present.

We invite you to look through our catalog and learn about many more new titles in History & Philosophy of Science.

If you’d like updates on new titles sent directly to your inbox, subscribe here.

A Mere Philosopher?

The Physicist and the Philosopher by Jimena CanalesOn the 6th of April, 1922, two men met at the Société française de philosophie to discuss relativity and the nature of time. One was the winner of the previous year’s Nobel Prize in Physics, Albert Einstein, renowned for a series of extraordinary innovations in scientific theory. The other was the French philosopher, Henri Bergson. In The Physicist and the Philosopher, Jimena Canales recounts the events of that meeting, and traces the public controversy that unfolded over the years that followed. Bergson was perceived to have lost the debate and, more generally, philosophy to have lost the authority to speak on matters of science.

Perhaps the greatest evidence of that loss is that it is hard to imagine an equivalent meeting today, the great physicist and the great philosopher debating as equals. While the physical sciences enjoy unprecedented prestige and funding on university campuses, many philosophy departments face cutbacks. Yet less than a century ago, Henri Bergson enjoyed enormous celebrity. His lecture at Columbia University in 1913 resulted in the first traffic jam ever seen on Broadway. His work was translated into multiple languages, influencing not only his fellow philosophers but also artists and writers (Willa Cather named one of her characters after Bergson). His writings on evolutionary theory earned him the condemnation of the Catholic Church. Students were crowded out of his classes at the Collège de France by the curious public.

The young Bergson showed promise in mathematics, but chose instead to study humanities at the École Normale. His disappointed math teacher commented “you could have been a mathematician; you will be a mere philosopher” — a harbinger of later developments? Einstein and his supporters attacked Bergson’s understanding of relativity and asserted that philosophy had no part to play in grasping the nature of time. Bergson countered that, on the contrary, it was he who had been misunderstood, but to no avail: the Einstein/Bergson debate set the tone for a debate on the relationship between philosophy and the sciences that continues to this day. At a recent roundtable discussion hosted by Philosophy Now, biologist Lewis Wolpert dismissed philosophy as “irrelevant” to science. In this, do we hear an echo of Einstein’s claim that time can be understood either psychologically or physically, but not philosophically?