Ludwik Silberstein

Born in Warsaw, Poland on May 17, 1871*, Ludwik Silberstein came into the world amidst an era of profound scientific progress: Maxwell had just formulated the laws of electromagnetism and Boltzmann was refining his statistical mechanics. From these arose discoveries that would shape the next century: the electromagnetic theory of light, the electron, and quantum theory. Scientists were not only seeking to further understand the world but competing in the race to offer proof. In these contests, Silberstein often played the antagonist—questioning the 'new' models and forcing his fellow physicists to further refine their ideas.

After his education in Krakow, Heidelberg, and Berlin (where Max Planck was his professor), Silberstein taught in Italy for about twenty years before emigrating to the United States to work as an in-house physicist for Eastman Kodak in Rochester, New York. He was skilled in mathematics and physics—authoring books on vector calculus, optics, and general relativity—and fluent in several languages, serving as a translator for Max Planck and Hendrik Antoon Lorentz. His development of the Riemann–Silberstein vector played a crucial role in the modernization of Maxwell's equations. Silberstein was a respected colleague of the best scientific minds of the era, and he corresponded frequently with many famous physicists.

Silberstein's 1914 book, The Theory of Relativity, was one of the first English textbooks on the subject and helped to establish it as a staple of university coursework. Although is it a heavily mathematical text, Silberstein demonstrates an uncanny ability to break down complex physics into plain language, a quality that benefited him as an educator and lecturer. The work is also of interest as it documents a transition point in physical thinking—Silberstein still supported the 'ether theory,' which would soon be displaced by special relativity.

In the 1920s, he worked with Albert A. Michelson to perform 'ether-drift' experiments, anticipating results that might 'strengthen or destroy' the theory of relativity. In the 1930s, he claimed to have found an error in Einstein's theory, publishing a solution of Einstein's field equations that appeared to describe a static, axisymmetric metric with only two point singularities representing two point masses—a violation of our understanding of gravity. While Silberstein was incorrect in both cases, his insistence upon subjecting Einstein's theories to rigorous experimental and mathematical examination only served to make them stronger.

*All published data about Silberstein gives his birthdate as 1872. In his unpublished autobiography, he writes that the 'the havoc created at home by my appearance' caused a lengthy delay in reporting to the proper authorities. To keep the month and day correct on his birth certificate, his father waited until the one-year anniversary to document it.