In his 1916 review paper on general relativity, Einstein made the often-quoted oracular remark that all physical measurements amount to a determination of coincidences, like the coincidence of a pointer with a mark on a scale. This argument, which was meant to express the requirement of general covariance, immediately gained great resonance. Philosophers such as Schlick found that it expressed the novelty of general relativity, but the mathematician Kretschmann deemed it as trivial and valid in all spacetime theories. With the relevant exception of the physicists of Leiden (Ehrenfest, Lorentz, de Sitter, and Nordström), who were in epistolary contact with Einstein, the motivations behind the point-coincidence remark were not fully understood. Only at the turn of the 1960s did Bergmann (Einstein’s former assistant in Princeton) start to use the term ‘coincidence’ in a way that was much closer to Einstein’s intentions. In the 1980s, Stachel, projecting Bergmann’s analysis onto his historical work on Einstein’s correspondence, was able to show that what he started to call ‘the point-coincidence argument’ was nothing but Einstein’s answer to the infamous ‘hole argument.’ The latter has enjoyed enormous popularity in the following decades, reshaping the philosophical debate on spacetime theories. The point-coincidence argument did not receive comparable attention. By reconstructing the history of the argument and its reception, this paper argues that this disparity of treatment is not justified. This paper will also show that the notion that only coincidences are observable in physics marks every critical step of Einstein’s struggle with the meaning of coordinates in physics.

Nothing but Coincidences: the point-coincidence and Einstein’s struggle with the meaning of coordinates in physics

Giovanelli, Marco
2021-01-01

Abstract

In his 1916 review paper on general relativity, Einstein made the often-quoted oracular remark that all physical measurements amount to a determination of coincidences, like the coincidence of a pointer with a mark on a scale. This argument, which was meant to express the requirement of general covariance, immediately gained great resonance. Philosophers such as Schlick found that it expressed the novelty of general relativity, but the mathematician Kretschmann deemed it as trivial and valid in all spacetime theories. With the relevant exception of the physicists of Leiden (Ehrenfest, Lorentz, de Sitter, and Nordström), who were in epistolary contact with Einstein, the motivations behind the point-coincidence remark were not fully understood. Only at the turn of the 1960s did Bergmann (Einstein’s former assistant in Princeton) start to use the term ‘coincidence’ in a way that was much closer to Einstein’s intentions. In the 1980s, Stachel, projecting Bergmann’s analysis onto his historical work on Einstein’s correspondence, was able to show that what he started to call ‘the point-coincidence argument’ was nothing but Einstein’s answer to the infamous ‘hole argument.’ The latter has enjoyed enormous popularity in the following decades, reshaping the philosophical debate on spacetime theories. The point-coincidence argument did not receive comparable attention. By reconstructing the history of the argument and its reception, this paper argues that this disparity of treatment is not justified. This paper will also show that the notion that only coincidences are observable in physics marks every critical step of Einstein’s struggle with the meaning of coordinates in physics.
2021
1
64
https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13194-020-00332-7
General Relativity, Point-Coincidence Argument, Hole Argument, Observables, Operationalism
Giovanelli, Marco
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Utilizza questo identificativo per citare o creare un link a questo documento: https://hdl.handle.net/2318/1771097
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