11 April 2013


Katy Price. Loving Faster Than Light: Romance and Readers in Einstein’s Universe. University of Chicago Press, 2012.

Despite its American publisher this is a very British study of the impact of Einstein on popular culture, in which Katy Price looks at the impact of “relativity” in various media from newspapers to high art. Einstein and relativity were brought to Britain largely thanks to the work of Arthur Eddington, the Quaker astronomer whose observations on the island of Principe were held to have confirmed the General Theory of Relativity.
The theory seemed to resonate with the mood of the times, with a world shattered and thrown off its secure foothold by the Great War.

Reception among British scientists were mixed, and Price shows how many, like the physicist, psychical researcher and spiritualist Oliver Lodge, argued for the retention of the ether, which was seen as British as roast beef and warm beer. British opposition to relativity continued well beyond the period covered by this book, in particular in the writings of Herbert Dingle.

For the popular press relativity, 'light caught bending', was one of the many sensations which filled their pages, and their comments showed little understanding.

From Price’s examples it’s not clear that the popular science press got it much better though it is intriguing to see how modern much of it was in the 1920s, with journals such as Conquest anticipating Omni, and Discovery anticipating New Scientist, with which I think it later merged. Expositions ranged from the technical to the frankly bizarre, some of the oddest coming from the self-styled 'Professor' Low in Armchair Science.

Price also shows how this interest was reflected in the British pulp magazines of the period, the very existence of these coming as something of a revelation. There were science fiction pulps, but relativity also featured in romances, though often only as ways of indicating the sophistication of a particular character.

Eddington, the man who introduced Einstein to Britain, became the leading home-grown exponent of his theories, was however a person of somewhat mystical bent, whose writings, along with those of Sir James Jeans, became the holy writ quoted by generations of cranks well into the 1960s and beyond. It was not just Eddington’s mystical views which had a deleterious attack on science, his rejection of what became known as black holes and denigration of Chandrasekhar, may have helped set physics back several decades.

Price also traces Einstein’s impact on such surprising literary products as the Lord Peter Wimsey stories of Dorothy L Sayers. I would also imagine that somewhere Einstein and relativity appear in Richmal Crompton’s Just William stories, as these contained much satire on the social and intellectual movements of the 1920s and 30s. Price also examines its impact on the poetry of William Empson, whom I must confess I had never heard of. His poetry was also inspired by dreams of Martian and other extra-terrestrial life.

The short final chapter deals with J. W. Dunne and serialism, and notes its use by John Buchan, but not by Dunne’s main literary promoter J. B Priestley.

I found that the earlier chapters of this book provided a stimulating insight into the years in which much of what we now see as the modern world was forged. -- Peter Rogerson

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