The era of Einstein

(Copy of my earlier Quora answer to question "Is Einstein overrated?")

No, this is ridiculous. Einstein is not overrated, and neither is Newton — the general public gets this issue completely right, because Newton and Einstein are remembered not for their direct contributions to physics, but the effect they had on how physics is done.

Einstein’s impact in this regard can be compared only to Newton, who turned physics from a field of philosophy into a field of mathematics. There were a few good physicists in Ancient Greece, like Archimedes and Apollonius — and also similar folks in India, China and the Arab civilisation — but it was disorganised, and it got destroyed by the Romans, in the case of Greece. It was due to Newton that the good folks got taken seriously, and the idiots, like Aristotle, got discarded.

Einstein had a very similar effect on physics, by forcing people to accept logical positivism. By force I don’t mean taking a gun to people’s heads and forcing them, or taxing people to fund pro-logical positivism posters or whatever, but you can’t do relativity without accepting logical positivism.

If I remember correctly, this is done in the very first section of his 1905 paper on special relativity (read it — it’s remarkable, even if you don’t understand physics — you can read it either as a contemporary work or a historical one, which is very rare for any paper, even Newton’s Principia), where he rejects all meaningless babbling about “is it really ____ or do we just see/feel/… ____?” etc. You don’t need to actually read Carnap, because philosophy is a trivial field, and positivism can be learned in three simple sentences: observers do observe. agents should act. everything else is nonsense. But if you need more convincing, just search for “the elimination of metaphysics by the logical analysis of language”, and you’ll get it.

Perhaps his most important contribution in this regard, though, was the establishment of symmetry laws as a defining pillar of physics. You can divide physics as “symmetry-based” and “non-symmetry-based”, and all physics since Einstein onwards is symmetry-based in some form or another. Until Einstein, symmetry was just a cool heuristic you derived from some physical laws — since Einstein, we accept some symmetries (or generalise them, e.g. in the case of Poincaire invariance in GR) and the theory gains its elegance from this. Emmy Noether is also crucial in this aspect, for Noether’s theorem.

Einstein is also remembered because relativity, along with quantum mechanics, put the final nail in the coffin for elementary physical intuition. This is a similar role as what Bertrand Russell played in the demise of naive intuition and the adoption of rigor in mathematics.

The celebration of Einstein by the general public often seems like giggling over random factoids, like E = m, time dilation or there being a supremum possible speed, but it’s really just their subconscious telling them the above.

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