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Re: [Phys-L] A bomb without Einstein?

Don't forget serendipity! It's tapped scientists on the shoulders numerous times. For example, just ask Henri Becquerel (or, way back in 1676, Ole Roemer).

Of course, serendipity didn't tap Enrico Fermi's shoulder in 1934, nor the shoulders of the Joliet-Curies in 1938, when these scientists were looking for transuranium elements in the radioactivity produced from bombarding uranium with neutrons.

Rick Strickert
Austin, TX

From: Phys-l [] on behalf of John Denker []
Sent: Friday, June 27, 2014 11:02 PM
Subject: Re: [Phys-L] A bomb without Einstein?

On 06/27/2014 11:31 AM, Savinainen Antti wrote:
I read a blog on Einstein's role in the atomic bomb with interest:
<>. I
confess that I may have given too much credit (or blame, depending on
your moral views) for Einstein on providing a crucial impulse for the
Manhattan Project.

1) The Wellerstein article rings true AFAICT. It is consistent
with other stuff I've read, including biographies of some of
the characters involved, and the fine book by Richard Rhodes,
_The Making of the Atomic Bomb_.

2) As a general rule, you should assume that all the history
you read in physics books is wildly wrong. Lots of evidence
and discussion of this point can be found in the epochal book
by Thomas Kuhn, _The Structure of Scientific Revolutions_.

a) The real history is complicated. People understandably
try to simplify it.

b) People confuse our present-day understanding of physics
with the historical process by which that understanding
was developed. They imagine that the historical development
was orderly and logical, which it most certainly was not.

c) They further confuse history with biography. It sounds
ridiculous when you way it that way, but it happens anyway.

d) They exaggerate the importance of famous persons.

*) et cetera.

Most physicists are lousy historians. Most historians are
lousy physicists. Every so often you find somebody who
goes to the trouble of developing the requisite overlapping
skills, such as Drake or Westfall or Rhodes. I don't know
that much about Wellerstein. He's the new kid on the block,
but he seems to know his stuff.


I get a lot of feedback on my various publications. Most
of it is very nice to get, consisting of intelligent
questions and constructive suggestions. There are, alas,
exceptions. My least favorite email was one that lambasted
me for referring to Galileo's principle of relativity.
I was informed that I should have called it «Einstein's
principle of relativity».

Another email informed me that Einstein invented the
idea of four-dimensional spacetime. Gaaaack.

My point is that people attribute to Einstein all sorts
of stuff that other people actually did.

More generally, when there is a collaboration between
a well-known person and a lesser-known person, people
tend to assume that the well-known person did all the
work. Sometimes that's true, but sometimes the opposite
is true, and most often of all neither could have done
the job without the other.

This is a problem for everybody involved, because it
interferes with their ability to collaborate. I have
run into this many times, sometimes on the well-known
end, sometimes on the lesser-known end, and sometimes
as the third-party manager trying to foster the

When people get this wrong, it is an insult to every
scientist ... past, present, and future. It makes
doing science seem incomparably easier than it really

Bottom line: Give credit where credit is due. Tell your
students that science is a team sport. Newton wasn't
kidding when he quoted the old proverb: If I have seen
further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.
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