David Hilbert (born today in 1862) was one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century. He made incisive contributions to a remarkable range of mathematical fields, published a best selling textbook on mathematical methods in physics, laid out a famous list of twentythree unsolved problems which still challenge the field's practitioners and was a kind of philosophical godfather to at least two generations of mathematicians. Under his influence German mathematics reached its zenith before it was scattered apart by the rise of totalitarianism.
Perhaps less known is Hilbert's friendly and sometimes notsofriendly rivalry with Einstein. Einstein's two most serious mathematical competitors were Hilbert and Henri Poincare. Poincare came close to discovering special relativity. Hilbert came close to discovering the equations of general relativity. Unlike Einstein, both were men of prodigious mathematical talent. Einstein's own mathematical shortcomings are well known; he had to learn most of the mathematics he needed for cracking open general relativity from friends and colleagues, most notably Marcel Grossmann.
In 1915 Hilbert came very close to publishing the equations of general relativity before Einstein did. Einstein had given a lecture in Berlin on his tentative attempts at formulating the equations. Hilbert was in the audience and doubled his efforts to find the right formulas. In the end Einstein ended up finding the correct form of the equations just a few days before Hilbert. It's quite likely that Hilbert would have gotten there first had Einstein gotten stalled for some reason.
However this story may paint a false picture of why it was Einstein and not Hilbert who ended up inventing general relativity. The short answer is that it was not mathematics but physics that was at the heart of relativity theory. Hilbert was the greater mathematician among the two, but Einstein's physical insights and visualization of thought experiments were unparalleled in the history of physics. Like a select few scientists  Feynman, Faraday and Fermi come to mind  he saw the physics first and then dragged the math behind him later. He had already viewed gravity as a field of spacetime which could be deformed and pulled by the time he started thinking about the equations. Hilbert, like more traditional physicists, tried to solve the equations first and get to the physical picture later.
Generally speaking, truly great and successful physicists are ones who see the physical picture first, and Einstein was in the front rank of this group. Thus even if Hilbert had gotten to the equations first, Einstein would still have won the day. His 1915 paper on relativity contains not only the equations but all kinds of amazing physical insights that would lead to observations on the bending of spacetime and the expansion of the universe.
The last word belongs to Einstein, not because he was a great scientist but because he was a great human being. After the whole nailbiting race was over, he wrote a sensitive letter to Hilbert that exuded generosity, acknowledged his own flaws and sought reconciliation and friendship.
The letter is a role model for competition and disagreement, and should be a must read in this era of political disagreement and conflict. Ultimately Einstein showed that while physics is important, being good human beings is even more important.
 Home
 Angry by Choice
 Catalogue of Organisms
 Chinleana
 Doc Madhattan
 Games with Words
 Genomics, Medicine, and Pseudoscience
 History of Geology
 Moss Plants and More
 Pleiotropy
 Plektix
 RRResearch
 Skeptic Wonder
 The Culture of Chemistry
 The Curious Wavefunction
 The Phytophactor
 The View from a Microbiologist
 Variety of Life
Field of Science






Trump's budget proposal eviscerates biomedical research, for no good reason6 days ago in Genomics, Medicine, and Pseudoscience







Harnessing innate immunity to cure HIV8 months ago in Rule of 6ix

WE MOVED!8 months ago in Games with Words







post doc job opportunity on ribosome biochemistry!2 years ago in Protein Evolution and Other Musings

Growing the kidney: reblogged from Science Bitez2 years ago in The View from a Microbiologist

Blogging Microbes Communicating Microbiology to Netizens2 years ago in Memoirs of a Defective Brain



The Lure of the Obscure? Guest Post by Frank Stahl4 years ago in Sex, Genes & Evolution


Lab Rat Moving House5 years ago in Life of a Lab Rat

Goodbye FoS, thanks for all the laughs5 years ago in Disease Prone


Slideshow of NASA's StardustNExT Mission Comet Tempel 1 Flyby6 years ago in The Large Picture Blog

in The Biology Files
6 comments:
Markup Key:
 <b>bold</b> = bold
 <i>italic</i> = italic
 <a href="http://www.fieldofscience.com/">FoS</a> = FoS
Subscribe to:
Post Comments (Atom)
This comment has been removed by the author.
ReplyDeleteOf course he would try to make up. He stole Hilbert's calculations after hitting a brick wall. Hillbert send Einstein the notes to evaluate and this Einstein used to figure the rest of the puzzle out. Without Hillbert's notes. Einstein was completely off track and would not have been able to crack it. Instead of collaborating further and creditting the Mathmatician, he published his findings and took the credit
ReplyDeleteMy reading of the evidence makes me think that while Hilbert would probably have gotten the correct version of the equations, the theory was really Einstein's. For instance check out the words of Einstein's biographer Walter Isaacson: https://books.google.com/books?id=OzSJgdwk5esC&printsec=frontcover&dq=einstein+isaacson&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjJ286EytnRAhXBMyYKHfi5BBsQ6wEIJDAB#v=onepage&q=hilbert&f=false
DeleteHow much help did Einstein receive from Mileva MariÄ‡? I hear she is a very competent mathematician.
ReplyDeleteMIleva Maric was an intelligent woman but there is no credible evidence as far as I know that she contributed measurably to the theory of relativity. She seems to have mainly been a sounding board for Einstein. http://www.esterson.org/milevamaric.htm
DeleteI'd be more impressed at a conciliatory tone were Einstein the "loser," so to speak, but nice nonetheless I suppose.
ReplyDelete