Review of Albert Einstein The Incorrigible Plagiarist

(Thomas E. Phipps, Jr.)

(From Infinite Energy Magazine, N. 47, 6 October, 2002)



Hagiophobia is defined as "a morbid dread of holy things." There is no question that the author of this book, Christopher Jon Bjerknes, is an exemplary sufferer from this too-rare complaint. For in our time Albert Einstein has been sanctified perhaps even above Albert Schweitzer, who certified the holiness of all living things, himself included. Einstein's life having been told and retold by numerous hagiographers, Bjerknes has made it his aim to provide the market with equally numerous anti-hagiographies - this being apparently the sixth he has written. The publishers have burdened the latest with a disclaimer, "This book is intended solely for entertainment purposes." However, we all know that nothing entertains better than a good character assassination.

For this purpose the book employs the Socratic method, the asking of loaded questions - in the style of, "Was this man ever known to stop beating his wife?" Physicists, who lead the pack of Einstein idolaters, will dismiss Bjerknes's questions with contempt. But I think others will be impressed, if nothing else, by the sheer doggedness of the scholarship that has gone into the bibliography. This fills almost half the book and comprises 567 numbered endnotes, some of which stretch for more than a page and include extensive references to the literature. Among these notes will be found almost anything that has been written by or about Einstein or his ideas, to the present date. My own limited scholarly resources noted only one omission: Karl Popper, the philosopher who first (?) linked the names of Einstein and Parmenides, is absent. But Parmenides is here, as he amply deserves to be.

From the start we note a deep schism: the author would like to side with feminists who see Einstein's work as actually done by his much smarter first wife Mileva; but, since Bjerknes also wants to paint that same work as stolen from earlier investigators, he faces an abiding problem of whose character to assassinate. Here the Socratic method proves a life-saver: Rather than offering a definitive choice, he provides weaponry for assassinating both Albert and Mileva, and leaves it to the reader's political preference, an open question, which candidate to take as the priority target.

Given all this smoke, how much fire is present? Einstein (or Einstein-Marity, the first wife) stands accused primarily of "plagiarism" in respect to the basic ideas of the special relativity theory. Narrowly construed, plagiarism refers to the copying of an earlier author's published words. No such charge can be laid against Einstein. The author exhibits not a single instance of word-copying or what the litigious would term copyright infringement. But that is not what Bjerknes means. He is referring to the theft of ideas without acknowledgment. Here the case is much stronger and also much fuzzier. Einstein's 1905 paper (which - amazingly - was originally submitted to Annalen der Physik under the name Einstein-Marity, according to the first-hand account, cited here, of Abram Joffe) contained not a single reference to earlier work. This is frowned on in modern science, and should have been challenged by the editor even then. For Einstein would have been a poor scholar, indeed, if he had failed to read Poincare's prior work on relativity, which explicitly enunciated the Principle of Relativity. One can understand omission of any reference to the much earlier work of Wilhelm Weber, who developed the first and last relativistic formulation of electrodynamics in terms of relative coordinates, velocities, and accelerations - since such would have directed attention to the persistence of absolutist elements within "special relativity" theory. (The "observer" or "frame" is such an element - a tertium quid extraneous to the intrinsic elements to be described in nature, and wholly absent from Weber's theory. Minkowski's covariant symmetrizing of the quid among all its quiddities alleviates, but does not eradicate, this echo of absolutism.)

Another dilemma of the author in respect to special relativity is whether to concentrate his attack on the theory itself or on its creator. If the theory is no good and was in fact stolen by Einstein (or by Mileva) from predecessors, then it would seem the blame for this no-goodness should fall most heavily on the latter. Error plagiarized is not error sanitized. Its provenance aside, Bjerknes clearly distrusts the special theory (as does the present reviewer); but the book makes little serious contribution to the comparatively vast (though little known and little regarded) literature of its logical criticism.

Einstein's (or Einstein-Marity's) originality consisted in adjoining the Poincare relativity principle to the Maxwell equations (which contain only one field propagation velocity parameter c and thus necessitate what we now call "Einstein's second postulate") and in showing that these stark logical ingredients suffice to imply a kinematics based on the mathematical coordinate transformations that Lorentz had already spelled out. Clearly the ideas pre-existed. But, as all inventors know, it is not permissible to patent ideas. If the combining of pre-existing ideas in new patterns is to be called "plagiarism," then it would not be an over-statement to say that all scientific progress and all invention depend on just this kind of plagiarism for what did Newton do but plagiarize from the giants on whose shoulders he acknowledged standing? He neglected only to attach names to the giants. So did Einstein. In both cases the behavior was perhaps a trifle magisterial and also perhaps more than a trifle forgivable. Still, unpleasant doubts persist in the Einstein case: Bjerknes shows that Einstein's scientific publications reveal a lifetime pattern of similar magisterial behavior. The absence of attributions in the 1905 paper was not a one-off occurrence. For example, I quote from page 231 of the book: "David Hilbert, on whom Einstein went calling for help, published the general theory of relativity before Einstein. Why after many years of failure, did Einstein suddenly realize, within a few days after David Hilbert's work was public, the equations which Hilbert published before him, and then submit his, Einstein's, identical formulations?"

As you can see, this last (stripped of its Socratic question mark) constitutes a genuine charge of plagiarism but it is not backed by chapter and verse citation, equation number by corresponding equation number, word by word. Lacking such substantiation, the charge cannot stand in court. In law, equations, like ideas, cannot be copyrighted or patented. Still, here is more smoke. It is doubtful if all such can be permanently cleared away. But one would like to see scholarship comparable to that of Bjerknes applied to the task. Otherwise, a polluted atmosphere and a bad odor linger.

In conclusion, I recommend the book to Einstein scholars and to sociologists of science as a genuinely valuable bibliographical resource for further research on the man and his times - and as a target for the Einstein hagiographers to shoot down if they can. Other readers, in search of more than entertainment, must proceed with caution.

Thomas E. Phipps, Jr.

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Urbana, IL 61801, USA


(XTX, Inc., Downers Grove, IL 60515, 2002, Paperback $19.95, ISBN 0-9719629-8-7)