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

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).


Roberto Martins Searching for the Ether DIO 17


I am grateful to the State of Sao Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP) and to the Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) for supporting this research. I am grateful to Dr. Istvan Domsa who helped me to obtain Courvoisier’s portrait, and to Prof. Wolfgang Dick for valuable suggestions and bibliographical help concerning this work. I am also very grateful to Mrs. Rosemarie Ritschl and Prof. Dietrich Ritschl, who kindly provided valuable personal information about Leopold Courvoisier.