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206 ✸ Galileo and the Leaning Tower of Pisa 12 Einstein and the Clock Towers of Bern Near the center of the old city of Bern, there stands a massive medieval tower that, in the 1300s, served as a prison for women who had illicit relations with clergymen. In 1405, a great fire burned it severely. The structure was rebuilt and converted into a bell tower bearing a great astronomical clock. On two faces, golden clock-hands tipped by suns point to hours, while another dial shows the phases of the moon. Five ancient gods—Mercury, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, and Venus—illustrate five days of the week as well as the five planets of Ptolemy’s heavens. And near a corner, beneath a grinning jester, sits a bearded Chronos, the god of time, holding an hourglass. This medieval clock tower straddles the very street where Einstein lived in early May of 1905, when he first thought of the relativity of time. Every day as he walked to work, Einstein walked by that tower or even under its arches. This fact gave rise to a myth comparable to that of Galileo and the Leaning Tower of Pisa—a myth about Einstein and the clock towers of Bern. Whereas the growth of the tale about Galileo is somewhat difficult to ascertain, because it began centuries ago, the story about Einstein and the towers is a recent development, so we can track its growth quite thoroughly. In 1905, in his first paper on relativity, Einstein briefly illustrated a definition of the notion of time by alluding to the arrival of a train and the pointers of a clock. Since he was then an employee at the Swiss patent office, one might imagine that his job led him to think about clocks and trains in relation to physics and that he thus came to solve problems that other physicists failed to solve.But actually,Einstein’s allusion to the 206 generic,commonplace technologies of clocks and a train were not unique to him.Other physicists who did not work at patent offices also analyzed notions of motion and time using examples involving trains and clocks.1 But this is not widely known, so it might seem that Einstein’s abstract relativity stemmed from his practical job. In 1993, Alan Lightman, in a bestselling book, imagined discussions between Einstein and his friend Michele Besso against a backdrop of clock towers that loom in Einstein’s dreams.2 Lightman’s short narrative was intended to be a thoughtful yet fictitious account. Still, historical claims also arose. By 1995, a story had emerged:“Einstein is said to have been promptFigure 12.1. The very old Zytglogge clock tower on Kramgasse street in Bern, Switzerland, where Einstein lived in early 1905. Einstein and the Clock Towers of Bern ✸ 207 ed to the Theory of Relativity as he watched the receding clock tower while travelling by tram to his job at the Swiss patent office in Berne.”3 In 1999, Steven Pinker, professor of psychology at Harvard University, published an article in the New York Times in which he briefly stated how Einstein formulated relativity:“from imagining himself riding on a beam of light and looking back at a seemingly frozen clock tower, he developed the theory of special relativity.”4 Here the valid historical account given by Einstein, about imagining catching up to a light beam, appears arbitrarily mixed with the image of a clock tower. (Interestingly, notions of“frozen” time show up in Lightman’s short fictional story). At the same time, also at Harvard University, historian Peter Galison carried out research to argue that Einstein’s relativity stemmed from the intersection of technology, physics, and philosophy, focusing on an apparently neglected chronometric dimension. In 2000, Galison wrote: “This summer I was standing in a northern European train station, absentmindedly staring at the turn-of-the-century clocks that lined the platform. They all read the same to the minute. Curious. Good clocks. But then I noticed that, as far as I could see, even the staccato motion of their second hands was in synchrony. These clocks were not simply running well, I thought, these clocks are coordinated. Einstein must have seen such coordinated clocks. . . . Every day he must have seen the great clock towers that presided over Bern with their coordinated clocks.” Galison further claimed: “Pointing up at a Bern clock tower—one of the famous synchronized clocks in Bern—and then to a clock tower in...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780822980179
Related ISBN
9780822962304
MARC Record
OCLC
887803456
Pages
345
Launched on MUSE
2015-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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