Mie's Theories of Matter and Gravitation

In Jürgen Renn (ed.), The Genesis of General Relativity. Boston: Springer. pp. 1543-1553 (2007)
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Unifying physics by describing a variety of interactions – or even all interactions – within a common framework has long been an alluring goal for physicists. One of the most ambitious attempts at unification was made in the 1910s by Gustav Mie. Mie aimed to derive electromagnetism, gravitation, and aspects of the emerging quantum theory from a single variational principle and a well-chosen Lagrangian. Mie’s main innovation was to consider nonlinear field equations to allow for stable particle-like solutions (now called solitons), and he clarified the use of variational principles in the context of special relativity. The following brief introduction to Mie’s work has three main objectives. The first is to explain how Mie’s project fit into the contemporary development of the electromagnetic world view. Part of Mie’s project was to develop a relativistic theory of gravitation as a consequence of his generalized electromagnetic theory, and our second goal is to briefly assess this work, which reflects the conceptual resources available for developing a new account of gravitation by analogy with electromagnetism. Finally, Mie was a vocal critic of other approaches to the problem of gravitation. Mie’s criticisms of Einstein, in particular, bring out the subtlety and novelty of the ideas that Einstein used to guide his development of general relativity.

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Chris Smeenk
University of Western Ontario


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