The World Is a Strange Madhouse: 100 Years of Relativity

February 10, 2022   •   By Paul Dicken

I am convinced that the philosophers have had a harmful effect upon the progress of scientific thinking in removing certain fundamental concepts from the domain of empiricism […] to the intangible heights of the a priori.

— Albert Einstein, The Meaning of Relativity

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IN 1922, Albert Einstein published The Meaning of Relativity, a general introduction to his scientific work based on lectures he’d given at Princeton the previous year. It was not his first attempt to explain the theory to a wider audience — in 1916 he had published a three-part essay entitled Relativity: The Special and General Theory, his intent, as he put it, to provide “an exact insight into the theory of relativity” for those who were “not conversant with the mathematical apparatus of theoretical physics,” although it did presume “a standard of education corresponding to that of a university matriculation examination, and […] a fair amount of patience and force of will on the part of the reader.” There is indeed mercifully little mathematics in the book, but it does begin with a philosophical discussion of the nature of geometry, and within a few pages is speaking casually of the uniform motion of Galilean coordinate systems and the fundamental principles of electrodynamics. It was not exactly a best seller. Yet within a few years, Einstein had gone mainstream. No longer confined to the chalk-dusted halls of academia, relativity was making front-page news; and, as its fame grew, so too did the ways in which it was misunderstood. As Einstein lamented to his colleague Marcel Grossmann in 1920: “The world is a strange madhouse. Currently, every coachman and every waiter is debating whether relativity theory is correct. Belief in this matter depends on political party affiliation.”

The Meaning of Relativity was Einstein’s attempt to set the record straight. It offers a more comprehensive treatment than its 1916 predecessor, and it is even more impenetrable — those “not conversant with the mathematical apparatus of theoretical physics” were thoroughly intimidated by pages dense with arcane symbols — but by then it had already established itself as a classic, the book that everyone buys but few people read, and with a literary impact to boot.

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The theory’s watershed moment came in 1919, when it was spectacularly confirmed during a total solar eclipse. One of its more notorious predictions was that light would be deflected by a large gravitational field, a consequence of the curvature of spacetime. A high-profile expedition led by Sir Arthur Eddington was dispatched to West Africa and Brazil to observe the phenomenon. Combining the risk of refutation with the glamour of foreign travel, it caught the popular imagination. The influential philosopher of science Karl Popper would later attribute his entire intellectual development to the experiment:

Now the impressive thing about this case is the risk involved in a prediction of this kind. If observation show that the predicted effect is definitely absent, then the theory is simply refuted. The theory is incompatible with certain possible results of observation — in fact with results which everybody before Einstein would have expected. This is quite different from the situation I have previously described [regarding psychoanalysis], when it turned out that […] it was practically impossible to describe any human behavior that might not be claimed to be a verification of these theories.

Interest in the expedition was more than just academic. Eddington’s confirmation of relativity made headline news. The New York Times ran with “Lights All Askew in the Heavens,” “Men of Science More or Less Agog,” and the more expansive “Stars Not Where They Seemed, or Were Calculated to Be, But Nobody Need Worry.” The Times of London went with the rather more reserved “Newtonian Ideas Overthrown.” Both newspapers would continue to run daily pieces about relativity. When Einstein arrived in Hoboken in 1921, over 5,000 cheering New Yorkers thronged the docks to glimpse the famous scientist. And excitement only grew throughout the 1920s. In London, the department store Selfridges pasted copies of Einstein’s articles in their display windows. A film promising to explain relativity caused riots at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Yet few of those pressing their noses to the glass in Oxford Street — or stampeding up Central Park West — were interested in the finer details of the theory. This didn’t seem to matter, however: in an age defined by the fracture of World War I, “relativity” became quite simply a proxy for profound cultural changes. It had overturned centuries of scientific consensus, and unlike the microscopic imponderables of quantum mechanics, it announced the new Weltanschauung in spectacular fashion right across the sky. For the modernists, it represented the possibilities of the future. The American critic Thomas Craven was the first to link relativity with modernist art in 1921; and others followed suit, assimilating the multiple perspectives of Cubism with the relativistic treatment of time and space (despite Einstein’s repeated protestations). Another popular response conflated the technically precise concept of relativity with the philosophically dubious one of relativism, as if the synchronization of distant clocks somehow stabilized or anchored fundamental truths about morality. At the same time, critics of the theory were horrified at the supposed moral decadence that came from abandoning Newtonian Mechanics and its absolutist frame of reference. In 1920, the Association of German Natural Scientists for the Preservation of Pure Science packed the Berlin Concert Hall with a conference devoted to denouncing Einstein as a dangerous agent of relativism. The keynote was derived by the Association’s president — and possibly its only member — Paul Weyland, who not only lied about his high-school diploma but was the editor of the antisemitic journal German Folk Monthly. It didn’t help that Einstein himself was an outspoken pacifist and social democrat (never mind Jewish) and thus precisely the sort of person committed, it was said, to undermining the national interest and traditional family values.

How one felt about his theory depended “on political party affiliation,” it seemed. This would come to have a dark significance after World War II. But in the 1920s and early 1930s, writers were as much inspired by the principles of relativity — or, at least, the popular understanding of those principles — as they were their political connotations. Some of them developed new literary techniques that evoked the relativistic unshackling of time and space, sometimes using them to describe their own sense of dislocation in rapidly changing times. Few of these writers would have made it past the first pages of The Meaning of Relativity, but this didn’t stop them.

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The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.

— H. P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature

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The history of science in general features our disquieting displacement from the center of a divinely ordered cosmos. But the 1919 expedition didn’t simply relegate us to the edges of the celestial neighborhood. It showed just how limited our scientific understanding had been — a physics of medium-sized dried goods moving sluggishly through an undistinguished corner of the universe — barely scratching the surface of the underlying reality. Space itself now curled up into dimensions we couldn’t see, while indubitable principles of geometry were exposed as a mere accident of our limited horizons. It wasn’t just that we had been wrong; it was that we had been deceived, led to believe that our tiny bubble of reality was representative of the whole. And if the universe had fooled us about this, what else was it hiding?

This peculiar sense of cosmic dread found expression in the weird fiction of Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890–1937) — an impecuniary pulp hack during his lifetime, from Providence, Rhode Island, who was rehabilitated in the second half of the 20th century and is now cited as an important influence by writers like Stephen King, Clive Barker, and Silvia Moreno-Garcia. The young Lovecraft was an enthusiastic amateur astronomer (his first publication was a letter to Scientific American about Trans-Neptunian Planets), and he remained an avid student of popular science. But he was also a painfully introverted individual, immersed in his own Gothic fantasy world of pseudo-aristocratic decline. He seized on the uncanniness of relativistic spacetime, with its unsettling curvatures and seemingly impossible geometries, and gamely added “non-Euclidean” to his already notoriously colorful thesaurus. Einstein’s theory in fact helped him create the signature otherworldliness of his fiction, just grounded enough in actual scientific reality to seem eerily concrete. In his best-known “The Call of Cthulhu” (1926), a doomed band of sailors explore the submerged necropolis of R’lyeh, and its maddeningly alien architecture:

Without knowing what futurism is like, Johansen achieved something very close to it when he spoke of the city. […] [H]e dwells only on broad impressions of vast angles and stone surfaces — surfaces too great to belong to anything right or proper for this earth, and impious with horrible images and hieroglyphs. […] [T]he geometry of the dream-place he saw was abnormal, non-Euclidean, and loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from ours.

As Johansen and his men explore R’lyeh, they clamber over “crazily elusive angles of carven rock,” disorientated by the shifting geometry where “a second glance showed concavity after the first showed convexity.” When the hapless sailors inevitably release the unfathomable horror from its aeons-long slumber, they turn and flee, one man being “swallowed up by an angle of masonry which shouldn’t have been there” — others being swallowed up by the recently awakened Cthulhu himself.

That scientific progress would drive the evolution of supernatural fiction is hardly surprising; a “supernatural” world requires the existence of a natural order that it can violate. It follows that the modern horror genre emerged from the Gothic tradition during the 19th century at exactly the same time that “science” was emerging as a professional career opposed to the outputs of the largely ecclesiastical university system. The genre staged the purported “conflict” (and uncanny traffic) between science and religion. In both Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), the modern vampire combines mortal sin and medical anomaly, a creature cowering before the superstitious symbols of the past yet ultimately defeated by the wonders of the industrial age.

But if the 19th century was a period of scientific optimism where the cool rationality of a Professor Van Helsing would inevitably triumph, the 20th century was decidedly more guarded about the implications of science. Scientific progress had given the Victorians railways and the telegraph — but it had given Lovecraft’s generation the industrial slaughter of World War I. In Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch House” (1932), the mathematics of the new physics has literally become a language of the occult (an experience familiar to any unwary reader opening The Meaning of Relativity). Walter Gilman, a student of “non-Euclidean calculus and quantum physics” at the notoriously incident-prone Miskatonic University begins to “connect his mathematics with the fantastic legends of elder magic.” The principles of relativity now represent the forbidden knowledge usually confined to blasphemous grimoires and dusty old spell books — the key to the universe, but dangerous to the layman. Gilman is warned by his professors:

But all these precautions came late in the day, so that Gilman had some terrible hints from the dreaded Necronomicon of Abdul Alhazred, the fragmentary Book of Eibon, and the suppressed Unaussprechlicken Kulten of von Junzt to correlate with his abstract formulae on the properties of space and the linkage of dimensions known and unknown.

It all comes too late of course; and despite his “intuitive knack for solving Riemannian equations” and his mastery of the “modern delvings of Planck, Heisenberg, Einstein, and de Sitter,” poor Gilman suffers the fate reserved for all those who seek forbidden knowledge.

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From this I reach what I might call a philosophy […] that behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we — I mean all human beings — are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art.

Virginia Woolf, “A Sketch of the Past”

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For Lovecraft, still clinging to a romanticized past, the theory of relativity revealed the duplicitous nature of time and space. The degenerate legacy of its Victorian ancestors, the modern age was, it seemed, inherently malignant, like the isolated and rumor-shadowed New England fishing towns that populate his fiction. But other writers rejoiced in precisely what Lovecraft found so disturbing, and some of these viewed Einstein’s scientific revolution through the lens of the political upheavals reshaping Europe. For the self-appointed avant-garde, relativity meant the proliferation of new perspectives, a universe governed by speed and motion, and the instantaneous connection of people via radio waves. Einstein had proposed — and Eddington had confirmed — that the force of gravity shapes the very structure of spacetime. Lovecraft had grasped the geometric consequences of the theory, but he found only “crazily elusive angles” and a universe that no longer felt like home. An unapologetic modernist like Virginia Woolf by contrast delighted in the fundamental interconnectedness of things, where every object had an influence on every other, and where “the whole world is a work of art.”

Woolf was self-depreciating about her scientific understanding, but she was at the forefront of the cultural reception of relativity. Much of her early work — “Kew Gardens” (1919), “Solid Objects” (1920), her treatise “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown” (1924) — appeared in the journal Athenaeum (later the Nation & Athenaeum) where she interacted with prominent science-writers; the assistant editor, J. W. N. Sullivan, pioneered the emerging field of science journalism, and published multiple pieces on the Eddington expedition in 1919. At the same time, Woolf’s diary records her arguing late into the night about the meaning of relativity with her Bloomsbury companions, including the philosopher Bertrand Russell who published his own (considerably less technical) introduction to the theory in 1925. Like many others caught up in the excitement, she purchased a telescope to observe the next solar eclipse in 1927, later reworking her observations for a similar scene in The Waves (1931).

In one memorable vignette in Mrs Dalloway (1925), the middle-class English everyman looks up from mowing his lawn to watch an aeroplane overhead, and is momentarily inspired to reach beyond his suburban horizons:

Away and away the aeroplane shot, till it was nothing but a bright spark; an aspiration; a concentration; a symbol (so it seemed to Mr Bentley, vigorously rolling his strip of turf at Greenwich) of man’s soul; of his determination, thought Mr Bentley, sweeping round the cedar tree, to get outside his body, beyond his house, by means of thought, Einstein, speculation, mathematics, the Mendelian theory — away the aeroplane shot.

Ultimately though, the Mr Bentleys of this world remain stuck in their Newtonian frameworks of absolute values and unchanging perspectives, the invariable passage of time marked by Big Ben, an unambiguous symbol of establishment values whose methodical chimes structure the unfolding day of the novel. Meanwhile, however, space and time seem to shift as the principal characters traverse London. In the modern world of relativistic spacetime, they navigate multiple perspectives, with the passage of time now a function of their speed. Thus Peter Walsh — the old flame returned from abroad to disrupt Clarissa Dalloway’s equilibrium — manages to cover roughly three miles between Whitehall and Regent’s Park (with a brief detour to follow a young woman in Trafalgar Square) while Big Ben has barely covered a quarter of an hour.

And while the pessimistic Lovecraft sought to constrain the new physics within an already well-defined genre, Woolf experiments with the expansion and contraction of time as a literary framework. The lengthy first section of To the Lighthouse (1927) covers barely a single afternoon of the Ramsays’ summer holiday, whereas the second (“Time Passes”) spans 10 years in the space of a few pages. Simultaneously, narrative expectations are confounded. Time in the house is drawn out — wallpaper peels, the garden grows wild — while the presumably more important human events rush past, consigned as an afterthought to parentheses:

[T]he spring with her bees humming and gnats dancing threw her cloak about her, veiled her eyes, averted her head, and among passing shadows and flights of small rain seemed to have taken upon her a knowledge of the sorrows of mankind.

[Prue Ramsay died that summer in some illness connected with childbirth, which was indeed a tragedy, people said, everything, they said, had promised so well.]

And now in the heat of summer the wind sent its spies about the house again. Flies wove a web in the sunny rooms …

No absolute Newtonian frame of reference determines the most important narrative, nor adjudicates between different voices. Everybody has their own story to tell.

In her later work, Woolf displays a more ambivalent attitude toward science and technology. The excitement of the 1920s had given way to the anxiety of the 1930s. In her final novel, Between the Acts (1941), the threat of war hangs over the pageant at Bartholomew Oliver’s house. Here airplanes overhead ominously interrupt Miss La Trobe’s celebration of English history, rather than inspiring the Mr Bentleys conscientiously mowing their lawns. Yet for Woolf, the modern age, rendered concrete in the theory of relativity, still offers freedom and escape for those willing to embrace its consequences. Like the eponymous hero of Orlando (1928), who doesn’t merely outlive his/her Elizabethan contemporaries, but manages to exist out of sync with the world around him/her, it is up to us to make a choice:

And indeed, it cannot be denied that the most successful practitioners of the art of life, often unknown people by the way, somehow contrive to synchronize the sixty or seventy different times which beat simultaneously in every normal human system so that when eleven strikes, all the rest chime in unison, and the present is neither a violent disruption nor completely forgotten in the past.

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Paul Dicken is a writer and philosopher based in rural England, and the author of Getting Science Wrong.