IT IS A PARTICULAR pleasure to me to have the privilege of speaking in the capital of the country, from which the most important fundamental notions of theoretical physics have issued. I am thinking of the theory of mass motion and gravitation which Newton gave us and the concept of the electro-magnetic field, by means of which Faraday and Clerk Maxwell put physics on a new basis. The theory of relativity may indeed be said to have put a sort of finishing touch to the mighty intellectual edifice of Maxwell and Lorentz, inasmuch as it seeks to extend field physics to all phenomena, gravitation included.
Turning to the theory of relativity itself, I am anxious to draw attention to the fact that this theory is not speculative in origin; it owes its invention entirely to the desire to make physical theory fit observed fact as well as possible. We have here no revolutionary act but the natural continuation of a line that can be traced through centuries. The abandonment of a certain concept connected with space, time and motion hitherto treated as fundamentals must not be regarded as arbitrary, but only as conditioned by observed facts.
The law of the constant velocity of light in empty space, which has been confirmed by the development of electro-dynamics and optics, and the equal legitimacy of all inertial systems (special principle of relativity), which was proved in a particularly incisive manner by Michelson’s famous experiment, between them made it necessary, to begin with, that the concept of time should be made relative, each inertial system being given its own special time. As this notion was developed it became clear that the connection between immediate experience on one side and co-ordinates and time on the other had hitherto not been thought out with sufficient precision. It is in general one of the essential features of the theory of relativity that it is at pains to work out the relations between general concepts and empirical facts more precisely. The fundamental principle here is that the justification for a physical concept lies exclusively in its clear and unambiguous relation to facts that can be experienced. According to the special theory of relativity, spatial co-ordinates and time still have an absolute character in so far as they are directly measurable by stationary clocks and bodies. But they are relative in so far as they depend on the state of motion of the selected inertial system. According to the special theory of relativity the four-dimensional continuum formed by the union of space and time retains the absolute character which, according to the earlier theory, belonged to both space and time separately (Minkowski). The influence of motion (relative to the co-ordinate system) on the form of bodies and on the motion of clocks, also the equivalence of energy and inert mass, follow from the interpretation of co-ordinates and time as products of measurement.
The general theory of relativity owes its existence in the first place to the empirical fact of the numerical equality of the inertial and gravitational mass of bodies, for which fundamental fact classical mechanics provided no interpretation. Such an interpretation is arrived at by an extension of the principle of relativity to co-ordinate systems accelerated relatively to one another. The introduction of co-ordinate systems accelerated relatively to inertial systems involves the appearance of gravitational fields relative to the latter. As a result of this, the general theory of relativity, which is based on the equality of inertia and weight, provides a theory of the gravitational field.
The introduction of co-ordinate systems accelerated relatively to each other as equally legitimate systems, such as they appear conditioned by the identity of inertia and weight, leads, in conjunction with the results of the special theory of relativity, to the conclusion that the laws governing the occupation of space by solid bodies, when gravitational fields are present, do not correspond to the laws of Euclidean geometry. An analogous result follows from the motion of clocks. This brings us to the necessity for yet another generalization of the theory of space and time, because the direct interpretation of spatial and temporal coordinates by means of measurements obtainable with measuring rods and clocks now breaks down. That generalization of metric, which had already been accomplished in the sphere of pure mathematics through the researches of Gauss and Riemann, is essentially based on the fact that the metric of the special theory of relativity can still claim validity for small areas in the general case as well.
The process of development here sketched strips the space-time co-ordinates of all independent reality. The metrically real is now only given through the combination of the space-time co-ordinates with the mathematical quantities which describe the gravitational field.
There is yet another factor underlying the evolution of the general theory of relativity. As Ernst Mach insistently pointed out, the Newtonian theory is unsatisfactory in the following respect:—If one considers motion from the purely descriptive, not from the causal, point of view, it only exists as relative motion of things with respect to one another. But the acceleration which figures in Newton’s equations of motion is unintelligible if one starts with the concept of relative motion. It compelled Newton to invent a physical space in relation to which acceleration was supposed to exist. This introduction ad hoc of the concept of absolute space, while logically unexceptionable, nevertheless seems unsatisfactory. Hence the attempt to alter the mechanical equations in such a way that the inertia of bodies is traced back to relative motion on their part not as against absolute space but as against the totality of other ponderable bodies. In the state of knowledge then existing his attempt was bound to fail.
The posing of the problem seems, however, entirely reasonable. This line of argument imposes itself with considerably enhanced force in relation to the general theory of relativity, since, according to that theory, the physical properties of space are affected by ponderable matter. In my opinion the general theory of relativity can only solve this problem satisfactorily if it regards the world as spatially self-enclosed. The mathematical results of the theory force one to this view, if one believes that the mean density of ponderable matter in the world possesses some ultimate value, however small.
(An address in London)