Explaining Scientific Genius

Clark's flawed lives of Edison and Einstein can reveal what scientific biography should be.


Edison, by Ronald W. Clark, New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1977, 256 pp., $12.95.

Einstein, by Ronald W. Clark, New York: World Publishing, 1971, 718 pp., $15. New York: Avon Books. 1972. 864 pp. $2.95.

Judging by the number of bestsellers purporting to detail the lives of Jacqueline Onassis, Elvis Presley, Lyndon B. Johnson, and the like, there is a ready market for biographies of the famous. To some extent, this is also true of less-contemporary figures and of people renowned for their contributions as scientists or inventors. Perhaps biographies of scientists attract because of the mystique of "weirdness" surrounding such persons, and for inventors, perhaps it is the romance of ingenuity. But what should we get from accounts of such people's lives? When is a biography of a scientist or inventor a good one?

In Edison: The Man Who Made the Future, Ronald W. Clark attempts to do for the inventor Thomas Edison what he did for the scientist Albert Einstein in his earlier book, Einstein: The Life and Times. Unfortunately, Clark is even less successful as a biographer in this later volume on Edison. At least in the earlier Einstein volume there is a rich account of those social and political events of the early 20th century that had an immediate impact on Einstein's life. There are, in addition, a number of anecdotes about Einstein's encounters with friends and scientists that exhibit some of their personalities and attitudes. Yet as a comprehensive biography of Einstein, this work is seriously deficient.

These same deficiencies occur in the Edison biography—without, however, the benefits of an account of the social and political milieu or informative vignettes of the persons with whom Edison dealt. Thus, the Edison biography is a double failure. One is left asking why such a work was published, since it is not as rich, sensitive, and complete as Matthew Johnson's Edison (McGraw-Hill, 1959).

Although Einstein is, in some respects, a better book than Edison, they both are unsuccessful biographies, and for the same reasons. What are the sources of the failure? More generally, what would make them successful?

A biography is an account of the life of some person. If the subject is an important or significant person, then the account should at least describe those activities and accomplishments on which this reputation is based. Einstein's major accomplishments were the special theory of relativity and the general theory. Of somewhat lesser importance, albeit still significant, were his accounts of the photoelectric effect and Brownian motion. Edison is known to everyone for his success with the light bulb and the phonograph. The public frequently overlooks his important contribution to the origins of motion pictures.

Of course, not just any description of these achievements will do. In order to be adequate and informative, descriptions must satisfy certain requirements. In the case of Einstein's or Edison's or any such person's achievements, these descriptive requirements depend on the nature of scientific or technological activities.

Science and technology are two distinct enterprises, but there is a grain of truth in the common view that lumps them together. That is, from one point of view both science and technology, especially in the innovative phases, are quite similar activities. In very general terms, scientists and inventors are trying to solve problems. Successful scientists and inventors have arrived at problem solutions that have been recognized as more adequate solutions than any alternatives. If we are to understand and appreciate the dominant preoccupations of such persons, we must be given an account of the problems, the problem-solving activities, and the solutions themselves. This sounds straightforward enough, but there are certain pitfalls to be avoided in such an account.

What problem was the subject trying to solve? His own description of it frequently differs from the description given by most of his contemporaries. Indeed, in many cases (especially in theoretical science), his contemporaries did not even perceive the problem. Sometimes they even explicitly denied its existence. So it is essential, I believe, to describe the problematic situation from the viewpoint of the rest of the relevant society as well as from the point of view of the subject of the biography. Then, insofar as it differs from the typical viewpoint, the subject's idiosyncratic point of view requires a biographical explanation.

What of the attempt to arrive at a solution? The subject's idiosyncratic view of the problem provides us with a standard by which to evaluate the strategies of his problem-solving activities. Thus, what appears to be pointless from the typical contemporary perspective might make perfectly good sense from the subject's perspective. The subject's shift in approach also frequently accounts for his success over his rivals.

And the solution itself? It must be described in sufficient detail to show that, and how, it is a solution. And some effort should be made to show why it is a better solution than any competitors. Because of differing perceptions of the problem, however, the characterization of the successful solution is not always a simple matter. Hence, when the subject solves his problem, it is often not immediately apparent how his solution is a solution to the problem perceived by his contemporaries.

Writers (and scholars) who do not have a firm grasp of the above general principles often produce what Butterfield has called "Whig history." Events and actions are described and evaluated in terms of their relevance or contribution to present states of affairs, rather than in terms of their own times. This is just what we find in Clark's Einstein and Edison.


What was the problem to which Einstein's special theory of relativity was a solution? The surprising results of the Michelson-Morley experiments, says Clark. Michelson and Morley split a beam of light in two, sending one part on a path parallel to the earth's motion through space and the other part on a path perpendicular to that motion. The split beams should have required different times to traverse equally long paths because of an assumed ether "current" created by the earth's motion. From the time difference, Michelson and Morley had hoped to calculate the relative speed of the earth through the ether. But they were never able to observe the expected time difference.

Clark tries to place the results of the Michelson-Morley experiments in proper perspective, but these efforts are quite beside the point. Even if we concede that Einstein was aware of the experiments (through Lorentz), it is perfectly evident that he was not explicitly trying to resolve the problem generated by their results, although the theory, incidentally, does provide a solution.

It is, moreover, quite misleading to characterize the Michelson-Morley experiments as attempts to "detect" the ether; no one doubted its existence. Michelson and Morley were trying to measure the effect of motion through the ether on the speed of light. Their non-null (!) results, however, did not coincide with the predicted effect. So, again, we ask, what was the problem Einstein was trying to solve?

The clue to the correct answer is the title of Einstein's paper: "On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies." There was a set of problems associated with the behavior of electrically charged moving bodies that both Lorentz and Poincare were working on. Einstein approached these problems from a perspective acquired from his teacher Föppl, who is only briefly mentioned by Clark. It is crucially important to distinguish Einstein's approach from those of Lorentz and Poincare, but Clark fails to do so (as did Sir Edmund Whittaker, who wrote the classic History of the Theories of Aether and Electricity). These were the real alternatives to Einstein's solution, not the red-herring list of alternative explanations of the Michelson-Morley experiments (again!).

This list is curious. To explain the experimental results, the following alternatives are presented: (a) the earth is not in motion, (b) ether is carried along with a moving earth, (c) Maxwell's theory was incorrect, or (d) there is a new "perverse" phenomenon in nature accounting for the difference between prediction and observation. (Notice that Einstein's solution is not on the list.) Now (a), a stationary earth, was never a real alternative. Stellar aberration, observed by Bradley in the 18th century, did not rule out (b), Fresnel's theory of ether drag; other experiments did, however, make this alternative an unhappy choice. Option (c) was still a live choice, which Einstein explicitly refused to accept because of its precise confirmation in so many ways. And (d) was the famous Fitzgerald contraction hypothesis, which supposed that bodies in motion shrink in size along the axis parallel to the direction of motion. Clark maintains that Fitzgerald's hypothesis was nontestable; in fact, it can be tested with an unequal-arm interferometer. In any case, an alternative such as (d)—a new phenomenon in nature—can never be ruled out as an explanation of any result.

One would suppose that Clark, having emphasized the importance of the Michelson-Morley experiments, would show how special relativity provides a solution to the problem of light traversing a moving medium. Instead, he presents us with a discussion of the velocity of light when the source and receiver are in relative motion. This is in interesting, important, but different problem. (Special relativity answers the original question by denying that there is a medium, or at least a medium with properties whose effects are velocity-dependent.)


Turning now to Edison, I think it fair to assume that everyone knows he was trying to invent an incandescent bulb. But what was the state of development when he began? Clark tells us about the carbon-arc lamp and the Jablochkoff candle, but little about earlier work on incandescent lamps. He mentions names and dates of prior investigators but tells us nothing about the details of their work.

We are told that Edison, from the beginning, sought a sturdy, incandescent element of large resistance that would not quickly burn out or melt. We are told that Edison made hundreds of trials searching for a material to serve as a filament. But we are given absolutely no information about these trials or the pattern of the search. Was it random? Did Edison proceed alphabetically through some list of materials? Did he instead focus on certain sorts of materials, and if so, why? Did he use his knowledge of chemistry to aid him in the search?

And, finally, was his success due to his perseverance and extensive search, or was it basically due to the availability of the Sprengel pump, which permitted higher vacuums? The latter alternative (which I consider more likely) prompts the question of why other experimenters did not use this pump before Edison.

Clark correctly points out that the development of the lamp was only the first step. More important was the development of a distribution system requiring a nearly constant voltage under varying loads. This meant, Clark tells us, that the dynamo for the system needed to be redesigned. But that is all he tells us about the new dynamo. We do know that it was not sufficiently novel to be patented. And when the efficiency of the dynamo was to be increased, we are treated to another account of Edison's trial-and-error method. But surely there was some kind of plan, some kind of reliance on guiding principles. Thus, all we really learn from Clark's account is that Edison developed a successful incandescent bulb, redesigned dynamos, and made them more efficient. We have absolutely no insight at all into Edison's thoughts.

Suppose one were, however, to dismiss as too stringent my concern for clear statements of the problem from several viewpoints and of the strategy of attack. After all, we can read about the life and loves of a general without bothering about the details of various battles, campaigns, or wars. Perhaps we should just take the author's word that such and such was an important discovery and should not demand, in addition, a clear account of what was discovered and how. But now we encounter Clark's Whiggish bias.

Clark apparently attributes much of Edison's success to his single-minded pursuit of a solution to the problem at hand. That Edison was not so easily turned away from his projected goal is illustrated by his criticism of one of his workers: "When he happens to note some phenomenon new to him, though easily seen to be of no importance in this apparatus, he gets side-tracked, follows it up and loses time." Yet Clark seems disappointed that Edison himself did not "follow up" the phenomenon known as the Edison effect, where electrons are emitted into the space around a glowing filament. Had he done so, Clark implies, he might have discovered the radio tube nearly 20 years before J.A. Fleming. Aside from this Whiggish appraisal of the situation, it is highly unlikely that Edison would have done so, since he did not work with alternating currents. Moreover, Edison did follow up on the Edison effect and incorporated it into a patented device for indicating voltages.

Then, Clark's allusion to Edison's work on "wireless telegraphy" when he discusses Marconi's invention certainly can mislead the reader into thinking that Edison has some claim to being a precursor of Marconi. A closer look at Edison's work, however, shows that he had a device for producing "controlled static," not tuneable high-frequency electromagnetic oscillations. Again the Whig distorts the picture.

I would return, in conclusion, to the general principles for scientific biographies. They should tell us what the contemporary situation was, what the subject did, and how it was done. From such an account we can learn in what ways the subject was very much like you and me and in what ways he or she was quite different—a genius perhaps.

With a background in physics and philosophy, Professor Schagrin specializes in the philosophy and history of science. He is currently chairman of the Philosophy Department at SUNY College at Fredonia and is the author of a programmed-learning textbook in logic, The Language of Logic.