The Media of Relativity

Technology and Culture 56 (3):610-645 (2015)
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Abstract

How are fundamental constants, such as c for the speed of light, related to particular technological environments? Our understanding of the constant c and Einstein’s relativistic cosmology depended on key experiences and lessons learned in connection to new forms of telecommunications, first used by the military and later adapted for commercial purposes. Many of Einstein’s contemporaries understood his theory of relativity by reference to telecommunications, some referring to it as “signal-theory” and “message theory.” Prominent physicists who contributed to it (Hans Reichenbach, Max Born, Paul Langevin, Louis de Broglie, and Léon Brillouin, among others) worked in radio units during WWI. At the time of its development, the old Newtonian mechanics was retrospectively rebranded as based on the belief in a means of “instantaneous signaling at a distance.” Even our thinking about lengths and solid bodies, argued Einstein and his interlocutors, needed to be overhauled in light of a new understanding of signaling possibilities. Pulling a rod from one side will not make the other end move at once, since relativity had shown that “this would be a signal that moves with infinite speed.” Einstein’s universe, where time and space dilated, where the shortest path between two points was often curved and which broke the laws of Euclidean geometry, functioned according to the rules of electromagnetic signal transmission. For some critics, the new understanding of the speed of light as an unsurpassable velocity—a fundamental tenet of Einstein’s theory—was a mere technological effect related to current limitations in communication technologies

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Jimena Canales
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

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