Scott Walter: Like Einstein, Just Crazier and Smarter

Scott Walter: Like Einstein, Just Crazier and Smarter

By Eugene S. Robinson


Because living in four dimensions can be such a drag.

By Eugene S. Robinson

Sitting in a lab at General Motors back in the 1980s, engineer and sometime auto mechanic Scott Walter started having ideas. Not the kind of ideas he had started to have after getting two engineering degrees from Stanford University, where his postgraduation job search was framed by a refusal to work on defense projects and an interest in robotics. Rather, he had started having, in very specific ways, ideas about ideas.

“Ideas have a history,” Walter says from the University of Nantes, where the self-described “historian of ideas” has just been promoted to full professor of epistemology (the theory of knowledge) and history of science and technology. “And historians have a good handle on how scientific ideas emerge and propagate.” This, and a general desire to improve his French and to study philosophy, landed Walter in Paris in 1986. The rest was improvisation around what eventually became research that straddled the divide between science and technology. 

Walter’s is an a priori take that tackles the more general questions of how these ideas are formed in the first place…

You see, Walter’s area of focus is the history of physics, and, according to him, he’s alone in that field, at least in France. His studies have given birth to books, talks on the historical origins of space-time and new perspectives on the ether in early-20th-century physics and art, and a certain amount of almost unsung international acclaim. This July, he will become director of the François Viète Center. Not bad for a Navy brat from Virginia.

But dig any deeper and you’ll find it gets sticky and a little thicker than molasses for any but the rarefied few who have a totally different understanding of what constitutes reality. Walter isn’t like Lisa Randall or Brian Greene — physicists and glimmer twin darlings of the string theory set who have found a way to make the utterly obscure vaguely understandable. In their case? Understanding that the particles making up the world around us are reconfigured as strings that relate to the force of gravity in a certain way, a take that has let them go where few other physicists have dared tread: radio and TV talk shows. But Walter’s is an a priori take that tackles the more general questions of how these ideas are formed in the first place, both by individuals and by communities of investigators.

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Scott Walter, a professor of epistemology at the University of Nantes, focuses on the history of physics. 

Source Université de Nantes

So back before you start thinking about cosmology or particle physics, you’ll find Walter, kind of an Indiana Jones of the quantum crowd, focusing on what these others, he says, “do not understand in the least.” Walter, who has thinning hair but is still muscled like the state champion wrestler he once was, is doing the heavy lifting of looking back before vaulting us forward, toward the notion that the barriers between the understanding and adopting of new ideas and practices in physics can be hurtled over by nimble scientists armed with some sense of the history of the science they’re studying.

“I find it very important to understand how someone — let’s say Einstein — thought about a problem, and how he arrived at the right idea,” says Leonard Susskind, Felix Bloch professor of theoretical physics at Stanford and director of the Stanford Institute for Theoretical Physics. “I find the subject far less interesting without an appreciation of the context in which the ideas sprung up.” 

Case in point: one of Walter’s favorite stories, about Hermann Minkowski, an early-20th-century Latvian-born German number theorist whom Susskind describes as a “giant.” Minkowski conceived of a four-dimensional space with one imaginary axis and three actual axes, and then made the claim that this was the true space of physical phenomena. Before his idea had gained much purchase, Minkowski died, his ideas unplumbed even by his most famous former student, Albert Einstein. Unplumbed, that is, until Arnold Sommerfeld, a high school pal of Minkowski’s, and Max von Laue, who would win the 1914 Nobel Prize in physics, dug it up again. The connections, made for Einstein by a college buddy, mathematician Marcel Grossmann, formed the basis for the general theory of relativity in 1915. And the rest, as they say, is history. A history that Walter laces up these days with research straddling the divide between science and technology, or why things do what they do and how.

Since the emergence of these professional communities in the 1960s, Walter says, historians of science and historians of technology “have mostly ignored each other.” His turn toward France in the 1980s occurred almost simultaneously with a turn in the history of science, wherein folks were leaving behind content-driven studies. Walter’s research focuses on how scientists and engineers understood the new electronic devices of the early 20th century, “before the theorists like [Werner] Heisenberg and [Max] Born came up with quantum mechanics in the mid-1920s,” he explains.

A simple enough two-step that ties together the real and reality. “One look at half the technology in my office shows me that what a professor like Walter is selling we’re surely going to be buying. If not now, later,” says Gina R. Martin, a Maryland physics teacher. “And even in the face of the fact that 90 percent of the public will have no idea how he contributed.” But as in other superinsular and sometimes isolated communities, Walter has drawn some heat from critics, whom he dismisses as “nabobs” or the “usual social-constructivist-cum-relativist crowd who dominate the field.” Critics like fellow academics Bernard Maitte and Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent have wondered at various times, to hear Walter tell it, “why I’m not unmasking corporate power, imperialism, capitalism, analytic thought, even why I don’t talk more about women in science and technology.” (Maitte and Bensaude-Vincent did not reply to requests for comment.)

Walter, for his part, while remaining slightly skeptical that science reproduces structures of male domination, is focused on extending the domain of mathematics and physics into statistical cosmology and wireless technology in the 33 years between 1897 and 1930. Real mad-scientist type of stuff. 

“Look, there are more things in Heaven and Earth than in your books of science,” Walter paraphrasing the Van Helsing line (itself a paraphrase from Hamlet) from the classic movie Dracula with a laugh during a recent speaking tour in the U.S. “Just not in my books of science.”