On April 6, 1922, in Paris, Albert Einstein and Henri Bergson publicly debated the nature of time. Einstein considered Bergson's theory of time to be a soft, psychological notion, irreconcilable with the quantitative realities of physics. Bergson, who gained fame as a philosopher by arguing that time should not be understood exclusively through the lens of science, criticized Einstein's theory of time for being a metaphysics grafted on to science, one that ignored the intuitive aspects of time. The Physicist and the Philosopher tells the remarkable story of how this explosive debate transformed our understanding of time and drove a rift between science and the humanities that persists today.
Jimena Canales introduces readers to the revolutionary ideas of Einstein and Bergson, describes how they dramatically collided in Paris, and traces how this clash of worldviews reverberated across the twentieth century. She shows how it provoked responses from figures such as Bertrand Russell and Martin Heidegger, and carried repercussions for American pragmatism, logical positivism, phenomenology, and quantum mechanics. Canales explains how the new technologies of the period—such as wristwatches, radio, and film—helped to shape people’s conceptions of time and further polarized the public debate. She also discusses how Bergson and Einstein, toward the end of their lives, each reflected on his rival’s legacy—Bergson during the Nazi occupation of Paris and Einstein in the context of the first hydrogen bomb explosion.
The Physicist and the Philosopher is a magisterial and revealing account that shows how scientific truth was placed on trial in a divided century marked by a new sense of time.
In illuminating a historic 1922 debate between Albert Einstein and Henri Bergson about the nature of time, Canales (A Tenth of a Second: A History) marks a turning point in the power of philosophy to influence science. At the time, Bergson was "one of the most respected philosophers of his era"; he was far better known, even outside of his native France, than the upstart German physicist, and his insistence that relativity was merely a "metaphysics grafted upon science" carried weight to the point that Einstein worried about whether their disagreement would cost him the Nobel Prize. Canales recreates an intellectual world in which disagreements were settled by civil discussion. Einstein was determined to describe the universe objectively and to explain its laws in the "simplest possible way." He had no patience for Bergson's mysticism and anti-rationalism. They were opposites in nearly every respect, from their views of the natural world to those of religion, politics, and social values. Canales draws an intriguing picture of the times while revealing the influences of other historical figures on the Einstein/Bergson argument. In the end, Einstein's "dilated time," so disdained by Bergson, proved its worth in a century of technological advances and more than earned its place as a cornerstone of modern physics.