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The relativity of discovery: Hilbert’s first note on the foundations of physics. (English) Zbl 0926.01004
Hilbert’s article on “The Foundations of Physics (First Communication)” and Einstein’s note on “The Field Equations of Gravitation” are a famous example of a simultaneous discovery: both papers of November 1915 contain the same gravitational field equations of general relativity. In addition to recent publications on the interaction between Einstein and Hilbert at that time, the present article is focussed essentially on Hilbert. “The Foundations of Physics” is interpreted as a part of Hilbert’s research program of turning physics into a mathematical discipline based on an axiomatic foundation, a program that was by no means identical with Einstein’s intentions. The author presents convincing evidence that Abraham’s and Mie’s papers on the theory of the electron and Minkowski’s work on special relativity and four-dimensional electrodynamics strongly influenced Hilbert’s reorientation towards an electromagnetic world view. He also explains why there was a brief period of irritation between the two scientists, although neither the independence of Einstein’s discovery nor the originality of Hilbert’s derivation of the field equations have ever been a point of dispute or a problem of priority. In the last part of his paper, the author argues that Hilbert’s own justification of general covariance was based on arguments of internal mathematical coherency which were completely different from Einstein’s considerations. Hilbert’s contributions to the history of general relativity were conditioned by his vast knowledge of mathematics and contemporary theoretical physics, by the heuristics of his axiomatic method and by his belief in the unity of all mathematical sciences.
MSC:
01A60Mathematics in the 20th century