I find something deeply puzzling about Peter Galison’s Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré’s Maps: Empires of Time. In particular, this wonderful book develops the contextual settings in which the relativistic physics of Einstein’s and Poincaré’s physics were conceived, as well as the intellectual link that existed between them. In brief, Galison makes clear the role that technology played in formulating the ideas of Einstein and Poincaré. The hope of Europe was to establish a synchronized system of clocks, for economic reasons (e.g., train services without collisions due to timing issues), political reasons (e.g., von Moltke maintained that a strong relationship existed between German national unity and einheitzeit), and general technology concerns (e.g., inductance in wires can cause incredible and varying lag times in signal transmission, as a function of distance and current among other variables, in telegraphy). Poincaré, having been educated at the École Polytechnique, possessed the “factory stamp” that their students possessed: even the mathematicians were essentially “mechanicians”. Einstein, educated at one of Europe’s leading technology universities and working in a patent office, machine patents abound, and Poincaré being thoroughly immersed in problems dealing with telegraphy (electrodynamics) and clock synchronization, Galison makes the claim that relativity theory is largely a product of the machine-minded science of the nineteenth century. This is pretty difficult to argue against, and I certain feel no compulsion to do so. The puzzle, then, is that Poincaré had every piece of the relativity puzzle solved, except for the variable pace of time —the veritable key to the complete formulation of the special theory relativity (STR)—, yet Galison claims that Einstein was somehow more grounded in his approach to the physics, and was less abstract in thought than Poincaré was. Not only do I find this to be a bizarre conclusion on the basis of the arguments of his preceding five chapters, but I am not sure who would agree that the engineer’s work is more abstract than the physicist’s, especially considering that Einstein, by many accounts, presents a corpus of work that is so abstract that it serves as a clarion call to the tremendously abstract theories of the twentieth century —quantum mechanics being just one example.
To do Galison justice, I will use his words to restate the concluding contrast between Poincaré and Einstein, insofar as why Einstein developed relativity but Poincaré could not: “Einstein’s focus was more insistently physical than Poincaré’s, more attendant to particular material machines rather than to the engineering of abstract ones” (Galison 316). This is just an absolutely bizarre conclusion, in my opinion; especially, considering that Galison tells us about how Poincaré had his hands on the nitty gritty details of material, such as inspecting mines. Additionally, Galison spent the better part of two chapter talking about the qualitative (as opposed to quantitative) nature of his mapping method, thwarting the typical abstract nature of differential equations; and his ardor for geometry over abstract algebra and other maths, which is where he made his name in developing so much of topology (e.g., Poincaré’s Conjecture), a much more intuitive than principally abstract endeavor, at least in his time. As far as it goes, Galison does a great job of convincing the reader that Einstein was likely influenced by the technological climate (which was directly linked to the socio-political climate) of the time. The thing is that Galison leaves two pieces of the puzzle unspoken for. One of these is how conventionalism of Poincaré is extended to the issue of time’s varying pace within different inertial reference frames. This is where Einstein and Poincaré differ, and I had a futile time of trying to figure out whether Galison is proposing some subtle suggestion. I am thinking that he doesn’t, because he never explicitly mentions that particular item, the varying paces of clocks in STR. That time is conventional, and arbitrarily mapped from the qualitative, phenomenal duration to a quantitative scale, was understood by Poincaré; so what was it that influenced Einstein that helped him come up with varying paces of clocks, or what was the difference in conceptual development? The other thing that is missing from Galison’s account, as far as I understand it, is what the explicit link is between synchronization of clocks and fully formed STR. Maybe these two questions are two aspects of a single question.
More particularly, my problem is this: Palle Yourgrau has painted a very different picture of Einstein by way of Einstein’s relationship with Kurt Gödel. Yourgrau’s A World Without Time: The Forgotten Legacy of Gödel and Einstein and Gödel Meets Einstein: Time Travel in the Gödel Universe illustrate the idealist ties between the two. Einstein was definitely influenced by Kant, having read the Critique of Pure Reason when he was thirteen. I don’t think, in light of Yourgrau’s account, that Galison is wrong; I think he’s done a tremendous job of grounding Einstein, echoing Bruce J. Hunt’s point that Einstein was not just an ethereal thinker, but a savvy, world-wise man. Having read quite a bit of Einstein’s publications, some letters, some essays, some speeches, and no small amount of secondary literature on his life and work, I think Einstein’s philosophical approach to physics was one that merged Mach’s “sensibilism” (I think that’s what we call his physiological-minded, anti-metaphysical approach) and idealism —not at all a Kantian idealism, but something more like a Berkeleyian idealism, which is mostly devoid of metaphysics, though possessing Kantian elements and some Kantian metaphysical musings. So there it is —that’s where I think Einstein and Poincaré probably differ, but Galison failed to dive into it. I think that Galison may have the conclusion backward, and that Einstein was willing to go where the data could not suggest him go. Poincare, FitzGerald, and H. A. Lorentz had the length contraction; they had the factor; and they had the Michelson-Morley experiment about as pegged and understood as well as they could. They can’t even be faulted on their adherence to the aether, as Maxwell’s Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism describe electromagnetic waves as waves, and oscillations, as everyone knows, requires a medium in which to occur. (Even Einstein would revert to back to aether theories in the 1920s, saying that he had only called them “superfluous”, not having had physical properties previously assigned to it.) My thinking is that, especially given Poincaré and Einstein’s discipleship of Mach, Einstein surely must have had some prejudice that didn’t particularly ground him in empirical data. It’s been fairly well established that the Michelson-Morley experiment played no role in the conceptual development of Einstein’s STR, and Galison has, in my opinion, failed to go the final step or two in showing how STR rises from the social, political, economic, and technological context in which Einstein lived. Without having done the necessary research yet, my inclination is to think that the view of Einstein, as merging Mach with idealism is on the money. (It is not by any accident that Nick Huggett couple’s Mach’s theory of space with Berkeley’s in his Space from Zeno to Einstein, which is to say, there is quite a bit of overlap and complementarity in the philosophies.) The real bit of irony is that Galison almost (perhaps unconsciously) seems to conclude that idealism is what makes the different between Einstein and Poincaré. Galison says:
Poincaré’s was a hopeful modernism of relations graspable by us, without God, without Platonic forms, and (though he was fascinated by Kant’s emphasis on structures through which experience becomes possible) without Kantian things-in-themselves (Galison 316).
Where Poincaré is tantalized with Kant, it seems to me, Einstein dismissed. For, only by casting off all objective features of time, not just synchrony but also pace, was STR possible.
Overall, I highly recommend Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré Maps by Peter Galison. I think Einstein had a very particularly pronounced and consistent approach to physics, and I don’t see it being so nearly otherworldly as many try to make it out to be; so Galison’s book is refreshing and probably extremely accurate in its portrayal. I simply think that Galison misses the role of idealism, even though he notes that Kantianism is surging at around the time of Einstein’s birth.
 I think Peter Galison’s shortened, article version of chapters 5 and 6 of his book is worthwhile: “Einstein’s Clocks: The Place of Time” in Critical Inquiry vol. 26 no. 2 (Winter 2000) pg. 355-389
 See Gerald Holton’s brilliant article: “Einstein, Michelson, and the “Crucial” Experiment” in Isis vol. 60 no. 2 (summer 1969) pg. 132-197