December 7, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Ian Sillett reads about a momentous clash between two intellectual giants in 1922

einstein bergsonThe Physicist in the title you will have heard of:  Albert Einstein, patent clerk turned genius, inventor of  E=mc2, origin of mad scientist hair and winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics.  The Philosopher you may not have heard of: Henri Bergson, son of a Polish pianist, quiet French professor, defender of intuition over measurement, awarded the Legion of Honour and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

In Paris, 1922, these two intellectual giants, one a celebrity scientist and the other a celebrity anti-scientist, publicly debated the nature of time. Their two worlds came together with huge implications for our society today, forever dividing science and philosophy into two discrete worlds.

Canales uses this momentous day as the centre of her book, around which she carefully weaves a discussion on the nature of time from the perspective of both physics and philosophy.

The book explores the boundaries between physics and philosophy through a comprehensive discussion of each man’s critiques of the other; through the eyes of their peers who felt compelled to support one or the other; and finally through the eyes of history as their last comments about each other are put into context.

There is no real narrative to the book and as such it tends to get bogged down from time to time, but never for too long. Ironically for a book that discusses the inherent difference between Einstein’s ‘time’ and Bergson’s ‘duration’, between measured time and the time we perceive, pages seem to turn themselves, yet it feels like a long read. It is certainly not holiday reading, but for a student of physics and philosophy it is essential reading, casting an important light on the division between science and other knowledge we have today.

On finishing, I was left with the feeling that physics, and science in general, is less convincing than it would be if it welcomed more philosophical debate. Equally, philosophy would be better for being able to question science, without the stigma of being labelled metaphysics.

Our society is poorer for the division of humanities and the sciences that was started that night in 1922 and if you don’t believe me, you should read the Physicist and the Philosopher to find out why.

Ian Sillett is studying for an MSc in Science Communication

The Physicist & The Philosopher: Einstein, Bergson, and the Debate that Changed Our Understanding of Time by Jimena Canales. Princeton University Press. ISBN: 978-0-691-16534-9; eBook ISBN: 9781400865772 (first chapter free to download)