A Science of Signals: Einstein, Inertia and the Postal System — Jimena Canales (2011)

A Science of Signals: Einstein, Inertia and the Postal System — Jimena Canales (2011)

Account of the ‘media thinking’ of Einstein through his contextual era, and his involvement with letter-writing (his wife Mileva, his lover and cousin Elsa, his children).

At issue is whether relativity theory and communications technologies are connected as consequential or constitutive. That is, were media technics, their limitations and capacities arise as a consequence of relativity theory, OR did communications technologies in fact constitute the theory of relativity, as they gave rise, in Einstein to the limits of electromagnetic speed, etc. Eventually the links between Relativity and communications signals were effaced.

Main point of the paper: “Einstein often claimed that his theory seemed strange only because in our “everyday life” we did not experience delays in the transmission speed of light signals: “One would have noticed this [relativity theory] long ago, if, for the practical experience of everyday life light did not appear” to be infinitely fast.4 But precisely this aspect of everyday life was changing apace with the spread of new electromagnetic communication technologies, particularly after World War I. The expansion of electromagnetic communication technolo- gies and their reach into everyday life occurred in exact parallel to the expansion and success of Einstein’s theory of relativity.”

The author contrasts Einstein’s thinking to his “contemporary” Kafka, a number of times in the paper: 

  • Einstein’s position, wrote Lodge, led to an absurd result: “as if we could prolong a man’s life by evading the tidings of his death; and might be entitled to say, without absurdity, that a man who died at seventy had lived seventy-one years and a lot of miles, if we had travelled so far that a messenger took a year to reach us.” A few years earlier, in 1917, Kafka wrote the story “The Great Wall of China,” which described a similar situation. Because of the long transmission time of messages across the great nation, “in our villages, emperors long since dead are set on the throne.”
  • In Einstein’s universe the distant and the close did not match with the faraway and contiguous. Kafka, at about the same time as Einstein, described places that, although next door to each other, were far since they could never be reached by a messenger.
  • During these same years, Kafka wrote “written kisses don’t reach their destination,” revealing that he was notic- ing some of the same aspects of communication tech- nologies that Einstein was. In the face of electromagnetic alternatives, postal communication appeared much more secondary than the telegraph and telephone.

Signal-thinking: 

  • “Einstein often claimed that his theory seemed strange only because in our ‘everyday life’ we did not experience delays in the transmission speed of light signals: ‘One would have noticed this [relativity theory] long ago, if, for the practical experience of everyday life light did not appear’”
  • Einstein soon started defining “signaling” in physics in the way it was used by the communications industry, and distinguishing the term from previous definitions that included periodic and predetermined signals. Previously, the term “signal” was used frequently in physics to denote both a symbol and a sign, including periodic and predetermined causes, but Einstein increasingly defined it in narrower terms: as a communications signal. — p.13
  • “Einstein, by reference to signals, and their path and their reach, overhauled concepts of time and space. By reference to them, he recalculated the shape and size of the universe; understood gravitational forces; determined the relation between cause and effect; and differentiated the past from the present and future.” p. 17

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