Revisiting Einstein’s Happiest Thought. From the Physiology of Perception to Experimental Propositions and Principles in the History of Relativity

  • Richard StaleyEmail author
Part of the Vienna Circle Institute Yearbook book series (VCIY, volume 22)


Mach has long been an important figure in the history of relativity, but the nature of his role has remained controversial. This essay contributes to this discussion by connecting Mach’s critical philosophical perspective more fully to his diverse experimental research and pedagogical contributions to mechanics, and charting his changing presentations of these over some time. In particular, linking Mach’s early research in sense perception and psychophysics to his conceptual critiques of mechanics offers new perspectives on relativist physics in general and Einstein’s debts to Mach in particular. Mach’s early work on the Doppler effect, together with studies of visual and motor perception explored subtle interrelations between physiology, physics and psychology, and offered new approaches to physiological space and time (which Mach contrasted to geometrical space). These informed the critical conceptual attacks on Newtonian absolutes that Mach famously outlined in The Science of Mechanics in 1883, as well as his positive account of the fundamental laws of physics in terms of experimental propositions and definitions. Mach’s critiques helped form a foundation for later work in electrodynamics in which he did not participate. Yet revisiting Mach’s early work will suggest he was still more important to the development of new approaches to inertia and gravitation than has been commonly appreciated. In addition to what Einstein later called “Mach’s principle,” I argue that a thought experiment on falling bodies in Mach’s Science of Mechanics also provided a point of inspiration for the happy thought that led Einstein to the equivalence principle.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of History and Philosophy of ScienceUniversity of CambridgeCambridgeUK

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