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A Criminal Case in the History of Science?
Priorities disputes in the history of science have often led to the falsification of evidentiary sources. In recent years, historians have repeatedly and intensely clashed over who should be given credit for the discovery of the final form of the gravitational field equations of the general theory of relativity, David Hilbert or Albert Einstein?
In November of 1915, Einstein corresponded almost exclusively with David Hilbert. They were running neck and neck in their race to develop the final form of the equations. Since decisive letters from Hilbert to Einstein are now missing, it was difficult to clearly determine who won the race. Nevertheless, for a long time it appeared that Hilbert had discovered the equations before Einstein.
In 1997, the tables turned. Now Hilbert was considered to be the thief. The discovery of yet unknown source material, a set of galley proofs of Hilbert's groundbreaking paper, played the decisive role. Recently, however, the tables have turned yet again. A closer examination of the primary source material used to deny David Hilbert's priority led to a remarkable discovery: a critical passage in the text had been cut out and is missing.
Daniela Wuensch thoroughly reexamined all of the source material and spotted something which had been previously overlooked - something astonishing!
Had an important historical artifact been mutilated?
This case study takes a proper look at the history with an exacting investigation of the primary source material in the archives, and does not shy away from the scientific details. In this manner the context is not lost, but instead the answers to the substantial questions are found, which have heretofore eluded the specialists in the field.
Though the account is concise, the broader picture is not missed. Wuensch finds a parallel analogy between the relationship of Einstein and Hilbert to that of Isaac Newton and Leonhard Euler, and she concludes her book with a comprehensive answer to the question of who discovered the general relativity theory.
In 2000, after studying physics and the history of science, Daniela Wuensch graduated summa cum laude with a Doctoral degree taken under Armin Hermann in Stuttgart with a thesis on "The Discoverer of the 5th Dimension. Theodor Kaluza (1885-1954). His Life and Work." In 2001, she received the coveted Wilhelm-Zimmermann-Prize of the University of Stuttgart for her doctoral work.
The author's abstract
The only extant historical source of Hilbert's first communication "Die Grundlagen der Physik. Erste Mitteilung vom 20. November 1915" ("The Foundations of Physics. First Note of 20 November 1915") is a set of proofs of Hilbert's paper bearing a printer's stamp dated 6 December 1915. This historical source was only discovered a few years ago. It is this source material which, in the main, formed the basis of Corry, Renn and Stachel's sensational article published in 1997 in the scientific journal Science. Up to this point, Hilbert was frequently considered to be the first to have found the correct field equations of the general theory of relativity, as Einstein only submitted his work on this topic five days later, on 25 November. The proofs of the Hilbert communication of 20 November do contain these equations in the implicit form but not in the explicit form of the field equations. Thus Corry, Renn and Stachel were able to reverse the prevailing viewpoint and claim that Einstein was the first to find the explicit form of the correct equations and that Hilbert must have taken them from Einstein after receiving his article - which was published already on the 2 December 1915.
Corry, Renn and Stachel, however, did not mention the fact that a fragment of the text on pages 7 and 8 had been cut off. The importance of the missing section of the proofs was only realized later. In all probability it was precisely this excised part which contained the explicit form of the field equations of the general theory of relativity.
This book investigates in detail the significance of this fragment now missing from Hilbert's proofs of his first communication on the "Foundations of Physics" of 20 November 1915. The archival examination of these proofs shows that the passage which was cut off from the proofs was not excised originally but rather that it must have been deliberately removed in more recent times in order to falsify the historical record.
Several arguments are presented which demonstrate that Hilbert had already developed the explicit form of the correct field equations in the proofs of his first communication and that the missing part contained them.
This comprehensive study concludes with a historical interpretation. It shows that while it is true that Hilbert must be seen as the one who first discovered the field equations, the general theory of relativity is indeed Einstein's achievement, whereas Hilbert developed a unified theory of gravitation and electromagnetism.
Part of this scientific-historical analysis is a comparison of Newton's incomplete second axiom of dynamics in his Principia Mathematica and Einstein's field equations in his general theory of relativity.