Roberto De Andrade Martins. Searching for the Ether: Leopold Courvoiser’s Attempts to Measure the Absolute Velocity of the Solar System // DIO, vol. 17, december 2011

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Roberto Martins Searching for the Ether DIO 17

3. Courvoisier's did not build a comprehensive theory that could be regarded as an alternative to the theory of relativity. He used a strange combination of classical physics together with the hypothesis of Lorentz’s contraction, and never published a detailed derivation of his equations.43

4. The observed effects were very small (usually a few tenths of arc-second) and there were always large relative fluctuations of the measurements. Any single measurement published by Courvoisier could be regarded as the result of random or unknown systematic errors. The agreement between different measurements could be regarded as due to chance, or to a process of “cooking” the results.

Notice, however, that several of Courvoisier’s computations were grounded upon published data obtained by other observers. Whenever Courvoisier himself made the observations, he published the data used for his computations. Anyone wishing to check his calculations could have used the available data to do so. It was not too difficult to repeat some of his observations, either.44 It is difficult to understand why the physicists and astronomers of that time did not care to do that.

Some historical circumstances may explain, in part, the neglect of Courvoisier’s researches. After the end of World War I there was a strong opposition, in Germany, to Einstein and relativity theory.45 Everything that could be used against the theory of relativity was used - from serious scientific arguments to empty rhetoric. In this historical context, one could think that Courvoisier’s work was just a biased piece of anti-Einstein propaganda, and had no scientific value. One might think that he was not a honest scientist: perhaps he falsified his data, described experiments he never made, “cooked” his results, and so on. Or maybe he was a careless scientist and just observed what he wanted to observe.

It is therefore relevant to elucidate that Courvoisier did not belong to the strong anti-relativist and anti-Einstein group of the early 1920’s. He was never personally associated to Philipp Lenard and Ernst Gehrcke, for

regardless of their scientific merit. This journal published, for instance, the works of Thomas Jefferson Jackson See, that were not accepted in any other journal. Cf. Thomas J. Sherrill, “A career of controversy: the anomaly of T. J. J. See”, Journal for the history of astronomy, xxx (1999), 25-50.

43 Notice that Courvoisier’s work was incompatible with Lorentz’s mature ether theory, that incorporated the principle of relativity.

44 Nowadays, it would be possible to check the reality of Courvoisier's effects using more precise routine experimental data available, and using better (computer) numerical methods. Several of his experiments could also be repeated using automatic instruments with a higher precision and in improved controlled conditions.

45 David E. Rowe, “Einstein’s allies and enemies: debating relativity in Germany, 1916-1920”, in Vincent F. Hendricks, et. al. (eds.), Interactions: mathematics, physics and philosophy, 1860-1930 (Dordrecht, 2006), 231-280; Hubert Goenner, “The reaction to relativity theory I: the anti-Einstein campaign in Germany in 1920”, Science in context, vi (1993), 107-33; idem, “The reaction to relativity theory in Germany III. Hundred authors against Einstein”, Einstein studies, v (1993), 248-73.

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Roberto Martins

Searching for the Ether

DIO 17

instance. His name was not included in the 1931 publication Hundert Autoren gegen Einstein 46 Instead of irrationally opposing Einstein, he met him and exchanged letters with him for several years - without reaching any agreement, but adopting a scientific attitude.47 Notice, also, that Courvoisier never cited the anti-Einstein scientists.

Another relevant piece of information concerns Courvoisier’s political viewpoint.48 He was strongly opposed to national socialism, and spoke about Nazis in a negative tone. He always kept his Swiss citizenship, and this helped him to keep out of the political turmoil that was going on around him. In 1943, during the World War II, he obtained permission to spend the summer vacations in Switzerland with his family, and never returned to Germany. When the war was over, the Babelsberg observatory and the house belonging to Courvoisier (built close to the observatory) became part of East Berlin. He preferred to remain in Switzerland, but suffered many difficulties, because his pension (he had retired in 1938) was not paid anymore. He lived for several years thanks to a Swiss social insurance, and to the payment he received for the edition of Euler’s works. About ten years after the end of the war, West Germany began to pay his pension again.

According to Courvoisier’s daughter, “He was convinced that he had found something that was true. He was convinced that this truth would find its way in the long run”.49 Leopold Courvoisier produced his research, published his data and conclusions, and expected some positive response, but he never tried hard enough to publicise his results and to convince other people that he had obtained very important results. It seems that he kept a low profile, and never attempted to join other researchers who had also obtained similar results (such as Miller or Esclangon) to produce an antirelativist front.

Since this is the first study of Courvoisier’s researches on the motion of the Earth through the ether, there is much more work to be done. It is desirable to plunge deeper into the scientific and extra-scientific features of this puzzling historical episode.

46 Cf. Goenner,, “The reaction to relativity theory in Germany III. Hundred authors against Einstein” (ref. 45), 273.

47 Courvoisier met Einstein in January 1924 and corresponded with him until October 1928, with no agreement being reached. Cf. Klaus Hentschel, “Einstein’s attitude towards experiments”, Studies in history and philosophy of science, xxiii (1992), 593-624, p. 613.

48 Some personal information presented here concerning Leopold Courvoisier was obtained in an interview with his daughter Rosemarie and her husband Dietrich Ritschl, in Basel, on 31 August 1999.

49 Rosemarie Ritschl (ref. 48).