In November 1919, a new theory of the Universe confronted the British public: Albert Einstein’s relativity theory, it was reported, had been tested and confirmed by a team of UK astronomers during the May 1919 solar eclipse. News coverage was extensive and made the physicist’s sensational, complex and controversial propositions on warped space and the fourth dimension the talk of the day. Given that this news was received barely one year after the Armistice, it is hardly surprising that many newspaper readers in Britain took offence at the fact that a German Jew had turned Newtonian physics on its head. Even supporters of Einsteinian relativity theory had to admit to its inaccessibility for people of average intelligence. “Incomprehension of the relativity theory is perhaps the most widespread human characteristic of the age,” reported Arnold Bennett in a book review column in 19. Clearly, part of the ongoing fascination and frustration with relativity can be traced to its perceived impenetrability. At the same time, writers of the interwar period saw the imaginative potential in relativity specifically and in Einsteinian physics in general.
The reception and dissemination of relativity theory in 1920s and 1930s Britain is the topic of Katy Price’s wide-ranging book. Chapters on newspaper coverage, expository writing, popular and pulp fiction as well as on William Empson’s poetry illustrate how aspects of Einstein’s revolutionary theory were assimilated, explicated and critiqued in the popular imagination of the time.
The diversity of genres under consideration is one of the many strengths of Price’s accessible study and aptly demonstrates her assertion that science and culture were in a complex process of negotiation at the beginning of the 20th century. While physicists debated the implications of relativity in specialist forums, authors such as Dorothy L. Sayers and the science-fiction writer Coutts Brisbane adapted it for the purpose of social commentary. As Price shows, a predominantly conservative popular press had established links between the threat of socialism and the elusiveness of relativity, thereby creating a cultural atmosphere of rejection that inhibited the spread of innovative scientific ideas. Diverging from these and other hostile reconstructions of Einsteinian themes, writers such as Empson and Sayers used relativity motifs to debate post-war concerns about social alienation. By thus transplanting relativity metaphors from the realm of the political into that of the personal, these writers succeeded in generating interest in new scientific ideas. They assisted in making them accessible to a larger audience and also blurred the paradigmatic boundaries between elite scientific and popular culture.
In addition to its impressive variety of sources, there is much in this study that is worthy of mention. A great deal has been written on the dissemination of relativity theory in the inter-war period, but Price has delved into previously untouched archival material to show the extent of its diffusion. Equally rewarding is the brief formal analysis in the chapter on Empson that hints at the absorption of the abstract, technical language of science in conventional literary registers such as poetry. In fact, because it would have further supported Price’s claim that a thorough understanding of relativity’s cultural perception can be gleaned only by juxtaposing different genres of writing, more literary analysis would have been welcome. In places, it feels as if she prioritises breadth over depth of analysis. She narrates and digresses. It makes for an enjoyable and instructive read but it distracts from the book’s overall argument. Nonetheless, as a critical intervention in the debate about science in culture, Loving Faster than Light is highly recommended.
Loving Faster than Light: Romance and Readers in Einstein’s Universe
By Katy Price
University of Chicago Press, 280pp, £29.00
Published 14 January 2013