Published in September 2015 issue of Prospect Magazine
The Physicist and the Philosopher by Jimena Canales (Princeton, £24.95)
Everyone has heard of Einstein, fewer know the name Henri Bergson. Yet in 1922, when they debated in Paris, Einstein was the less well known. Bergson, the grand man of French philosophy, dominated international intellectual life. On a lecture tour of the US, he attracted a crowd so large it caused Manhattan’s first ever traffic jam.
Jimena Canales, a professor of the history of science at the University of Illinois, sets out with skill Bergson’s objections to Einstein, which centred on his treatment of time. Relativity banished “real” philosophical time. Einstein’s theory said that simultaneity—two events occurring at once—was a mirage and that time perception depended on an observer’s position. More outrageous still, a clock travelling at close to the speed of light would mark time more slowly than an identical stationary clock.