Einstein’s 1905 paper on special relativity uses the problem of synchronizing two clocks as a jumping-off point. Peter Galison’s book has a clever thesis: Einstein’s insight was no bolt from the blue, but rather a clever new twist on an engineering problem that was everywhere at the turn of the century. Thus, Galison retells the history of clock synchronization—physical, telegraphic, electromagnetic—with special focus on the work of Henri Poincaré, who anticipated Einstein’s emphasis on the centrality of synchronization in understanding time, but couldn’t bring himself to give up the ether.
It’s a great concept, but the execution is lacking. Whoever had this copy before me heavily underlined the first chapter, but the annotations peter out after that. I can understand why. The writing suffers from Devil in the White City syndrome: excessive dramatization of matters that would have been more engaging if told straightforwardly. There are long set pieces—such as one on the 1884 International Meridian Conference, which fixed the Prime Meridian in Greenwich—that seem to have been written by transcribing and condensing (though not by enough) some set of archival documents. Worse, for someone seemingly obsessive about getting right the subtle distinctions in Einstein’s and Poincaré’s conceptions of time, Galison gives too short a shrift to the details of their actual writings. Just when you think you’ve got it, the authorial voice intrudes.
In the end, I unleashed my inner Tyler Cowen and put the book down, unfinished. I’ve got better uses for my time—like folding laundry.