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Home Sean Winkler: Translation of Boris Hessen’s “Preface to Articles by A. Einstein and J.J. Thomson”

Translation of Boris Hessen’s “Preface to Articles by A. Einstein and J.J. Thomson”

Sean Winkler

Abstract. The following is a translation of Boris Hessen‟s «Предисловие к статьям А. Эйнштейна и Дж. Дж. Томсона», which was published in the Soviet Journal, Под знаменем марксизма.1 The paper was an introduction to the Russian translations of Albert Einstein‟s „Newtons Mechanik und ihr Einfluß auf die Gestaltung der theoretischen Physik“,2 J.J. Thomson‟s “Newton‟s Work in Physics”3 and Horace Lamb‟s “Newton‟s Work in Mechanics”, all of which were written in commemoration of the bicentennial of Sir Isaac Newton‟s death.4 Hessen maintains that the resurgent interest in Newton in the early 20th century was not only due to the bicentennial, but to the unwillingness of many theorists to accept the significance of the ensuing crisis within physics. He contends that this crisis was the sign that the Newtonian paradigm was breaking down and giving way to something new. Quantum mechanics, for Hessen, marked one aspect of the way forward as it made a qualitative break from Newtonian physics in the same way that the latter had been from Scholastic Aristotelian physics some centuries before. He also argues that quantum mechanics alone could not solve every aspect of the crisis as it required a supplement in Marxist dialectical/historical materialism. This paper is a marked contrast to Hessen‟s later, and better-known, work on Newton, “The Social and Economic Roots of Newton‟s Principia” from 1931. Where in 1927, he appears to defend a position more akin to the so-called „internalist‟ approach to the historiography of natural science, in 1931, he is generally considered to have defended an „externalist‟ approach.5 We hope that this new translation will stimulate discussion about the overall consistency of Hessen‟s thought as well as encourage new assessments of his contribution to the historiography of natural science.

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