Vladimir Fock:
Philosophy of Gravity and Gravity of Philosophy

Gennady Gorelik

The Attraction of gravitation: new studies in the history of general relativity
/ John Earman, Michel Janssen, John D. Norton, editors.
Boston : Birkhauser, 1993. [Einstein studies ; v. 5]. P. 308-331.

1. First Steps in the General Theory of Relativity
2. One and a Half Decades under the Symbol h and the Year 1937 under the Banner of Marxism
3. Fock's Work on Motion in GTR
4. The Contribution of Nikolaus Copernicus to the General Theory of Relativity
5. Fock's "Theory of Space, Time and Gravity" against the Background of His Gravity, His Time, and His Space
6. Principles of Relativity and Complementarity for the History of Physics


V. A. Fock Chronology (Gravitational, Philosophical, Social)

Vladimir Aleksandrovich Fock (1898-1974) was one of the main participants in the history of the general theory of relativity (GTR) in Russia. His teachers, A. A. Friedmann and V. K. Frederiks, were the pioneers of GTR in Russia (Vizgin and Gorelik 1987). He studied the famous Friedmann paper on nonstatic cosmology in manuscript form and translated it, at the author's request, into German. He elaborated a description of the spinor field in GTR (Fock 1929). In 1935 he was an "opponent" (judge) of Matvey Bronstein's thesisthe first deep investigation of quantum gravity. He independently of Einstein, Infeld, and Hoffman (1938) solved the problem of motion in GTR. He is the author of the first Soviet monograph on GTR. And, finally, he was an energetic and tireless participant in the discussions during the 1950s and 1960s on understanding GTR.

However, despite Fock's authority in physics due to his scientific abilities, his attitude toward GTR was not shared by many even in the USSR. This concerned his attitude toward cosmology, the role of coordinate conditions and especially privileged systems of reference, the principles of relativity and equivalence and the philosophical status of GTR.

His stand on the last issue seems to be the most enigmatic because he unequivocally declared his adherence to dialectical materialism and connected it with his understanding of GTR. Such an attitude did not attract sympathy among physicists, although Fock's human dignity and honesty were beyond doubt. Besides, in Stalin's time, Fock was the main defender of quantum and relativistic physics in the USSR.

This situation has already attracted the attention of historians (Graham 1982, 1987). Here I shall try to reveal the roots of Fock's position in his scientific activity proper and to analyze the nature of the communication gap between Fock and his physicist colleagues.

To do this, it is necessary to take into account the following factors: Fock's specific methodological stand, which was intermediate between theoretical physics and mathematics; his predisposition to a philosophical world view; his inclination to schematism or mathematization in life outside natural science; and finally the relatively narrow empirical basis of GTR in the 1930s to 1950s. It is not easy to discuss these factors in academic terms since they manifested themselves in horrible social circumstances. They were embodied concretely in Fock's personalityhe was an honest, dignified, fearless and, strange as it may seem, law-abiding person. To reveal these elements of the explanation and to connect them in a united scientific-psychological complex, one should consider the evolution of Fock's views.

Vladimir  Fock (1898-1974)


Anna Kapitsa's cartoon caricaturing Vladimir Fock's  attitude to Peter Kapitsa's way of handling math. 

The date is February 5, 1953. It was the seventh year of Peter Kapitsa's disgrace. Vladimir  Fock was visiting the Kapitsas, a few weeks before Stalin's death. 


1. First Steps in the General Theory of Relativity

Fock (1963) recalled the following of his early acquaintance with GTR:

A. A. Friedmann and V. K. Frederiks, professors in Petrograd University, were the first who familiarized Russian physicists, who worked in Petrograd, with the theory of gravitation recently created by Einstein. This was at the very beginning of the 1920s when the blockade of Soviet Russia had just been broken and scientific literature from abroad began to arrive. In the Physical Institute of the University a seminar gathered where, among other things, lectures on Einstein's theory were delivered. The participants of the seminar were teachers and students in their last year (and at that rime there were very few). The basic speakers on the theory of relativity were V. K. Frederiks and A. A. Friedmann, but sometimes also Yu. a. Krutkov, V. R. Bursian and others spoke. I remember the talks of Frederiks and Friedmann clearly. The style of these talks was different: Frederiks deeply understood the physical side of the theory, but did not like the mathematical computations; Friedmann stressed not physics, but mathematics. He strived for mathematical rigor and attributed great importance to the full and exact formulation of the initial preconditions. The discussions that arose between Frederiks and Friedmann were very interesting. This recollection, with its "duet of acting characters"mathematics and physicsas we shall see, can tell us much about Fock's position itself. In spite of the important role of Frederiks in the assimilation of GTR in Russia, one may doubt the depth of his physical comprehension of GTR. On the other hand, "the full and exact formulation of the initial preconditions" was very characteristic of Fock himself.

The earliest documented testimony of Fock's interests in GTR is his handwritten summary of his lecture in a philosophical circle dated 1922.What should be noted especially is that this summary is half philosophical. Fock begins with:

I am going to give an account of the physical foundations of the theory of relativity and to point out some contacts with philosophical problems. But I consider myself to be an ignoramus in philosophy, and therefore I do not claim to solve, or even to put philosophical questions in correct form. In this respect I wait for the assistance of my listeners. After a few words about the historical origins of GTR, Fock turns to the leading thread: the search for the really existing in the nature. The really existing is defined as being perceived by all identically. Examples:

(a) an object being seen from different viewpoints;

(b) an object being seen by moving observers; its mass and dimensions.

If two observers see differently, it is clear that they see not the whole object but facets of it.

One had to admit as really existing not space and time separately but their combination; instead of r2 and t2 the interval r2 c2t2 really exists.

Fock summarizes the content of general relativity in the following way: Geometry has absorbed physics. From the formal point of view it is all the same, but it is more satisfactory for our intuitions. As well now the physicist believes in the existence of atoms and electrons neither more nor less than in the existence of common "large" objects. If he was a "naive realist," he has remained the same. But he replaced entities that he considered before as really existing. It is possible to go further.

Physics strives to break up phenomena into the simplest elements. But the simplest elements are not commonplace to us; besides that, they (as the simplest) are undefinable. The familiar (i. e., having properties of familiar objects) are only rather complex combinations of these elements. But so far as we have not given definitions for elements, there are no definitions for these combinations either.

And we give a definition for the latter. We take the quantity Gmn . We do not say that it is equal to zero when matter is absent, but in another way: being equal to zero means that matter is absent, i. e., absence of matter is a symptom of Gmn being equal to zero.

From this short text one can draw some important conclusions.

In 1922 in Soviet Russia the philosophical approach to natural science was still a purely private affair. To lecture at a philosophical circle meant a certain predisposition to a philosophical outlook. It is difficult to attribute Fock's view in 1922 to some -ism (e. g., to intersubjective idealism or mathematical realism), but one can definitely say that in Fock's position there is no dialectical materialism (which he would master and appropriate in the mid-1930s). His striving to comprehend the epistemological bridge between physical reality and theory is beyond doubt.

In the philosophical viewpoint of the 24-year-old theorist, it is possible to see some ideas of the classics of relativity. However, Fock's approach to GTR seems highly independent (unlike the first Russian review on GTR by Frederiks (1921)). Instead of the ideas of general relativity, covariance and equivalence, which were usual for the majority of accounts of GTR, in Fock's account what prevails is the geometrical approach, based on the concept of absolute space-time. The other interesting feature is this: Fock mentions "the possibility of finite but boundless space" and does not mention the possibility of a nonstatic universe, while Friedmann's popular (1923) book was finished the day (!) before Fock's lecture, and it talked about this new possibility with enthusiasm. Friedmann's famous paper (1922) was dated May 29.

2. One and a Half Decades under the Symbol h and the Year 1937 under the Banner of Marxism

In the following one and a half decades Fock was busy with quantum theory on the whole. His important work on including the Dirac equation into GTR (1929) did not concern questions of principle in GTR.

Some interesting traits for the relativistic portrait of Fock may be revealed in his participation in the defense of M. P. Bronstein's thesis in 1935 (Gorelik and Frenkel 1985). Fock assessed highly this investigation, which was concerned mainly with the quantization of weak gravitational fields. He did not, however, attach importance to one of Bronstein's conclusions, which may have been the most interesting from the general physical and philosophical points of view, but the least definite mathematically. Based on a quantum-relativistic analysis of the measurability of the gravitational field (beyond its weakness and nongeometrical character), Bronstein deduced that, in a complete theory of quantum gravity, the concepts of space and time would have to be generalized radically. In Fock's words of 1935, one can see some distrust of GTR: he admits that the theory (of strong fields) may be changed and doubts the special role of the gravitational radius. (See Gorelik and Frenkel 1985.)

Fock took up the Einstein theory of gravitation in full measure at the end of the 1930s, preceded by some important events in his philosophical and social biography.

At the beginning of the 1930s, Fock discovered dialectical materialism for himself (hereafter I shall use the common Soviet abbreviation Diamat). We know from A. D. Aleksandrov's testimony (Aleksandrov 1988, 1989) that Fock read Lenin's book Materialism and Empirio-Criticism in 1932 and found in it something interesting and important for him (and he regretted that this book was inculcated in a "police" way). Two decades later Fock, in the introduction to his book on GTR, remarked:

The philosophical side of my views on the theory of space, time and gravitation was formed under the influence of the philosophy of dialectical materialism, in particular under the influence of Lenin's Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. The teaching of dialectical materialism helped me to approach critically Einstein's point of view concerning the theory created by him and to think it out anew. This teaching helped me also to understand correctly, and to interpret, the new results obtained by me. I would like to state this here, although this book does not explicitly touch philosophical questions. (Fock 1955, p. 16) Before considering the interaction between Fock, Diamat, and the theory of gravity, let us get acquainted with some facts from Fock's biography which may seem to be irrelevant at first glance.

In answering an official questionnaire in 1938, Fock wrote that he was descended from nobles, although he could have given a much less dangerous reply, because his father was a scientist-forester. Fock also informs us: "Since birth I have lived in Leningrad, did not take part in the revolutionary movement, <...> was not repressed by Soviet power." [Personal file of V. A. Fock. Archives Acad. Sci. USSR 411-14-127].

There are some inexactitudes here. In the first place, having entered Petrograd University in 1916, Fock in 1917 voluntarily joined the artillery school and then went to the war front (in 1918 he was immobilized because of advancing deafness). In the second place, Fock was arrested twice: in 1935 for one day and in 1937 also for only a few days (in the latter case he was released as a result of P. Kapitsa's courageous letter "upstairs").

For Fock, 1937 was also filled with many other events that were not very scientific. He was active in preventing a special session of the Academy of Sciences concerned with the philosophical basis of modem physics (Gorelik 1990). The initiator of this session was the 65-year-old electrical engineer academician, V. F. Mitkevich. Having old-fashioned (meta-) physical views and having obtained new-fashioned political skills, he officially proposed organizing a special meeting "for the struggle for the materialistic foundations of physics and against physical idealism." He had named V. A. Fock (together with I. E. Tamm and Ya. I. Frenkel) as a physical idealist and an opponent of Diamat.

Before 1937 Fock did not express his philosophical views publicly but had expressed unequivocally his opinion about the poor scientific level of books by Mitkevich and his fellow campaigner A. K. Timiryazev in a review (Fock 1934) published in the leading popular-scientific journal.

It was this review that was attacked (three years later!) by an aggressive and prolific journalist, V. E. Lvov. He seemed to take into account Fock's arrest and charged him not only with idealism but also with adherence to fascist methods!

Fock had to defend himself and his science. He sent three letters. In the first one, addressed to the Leningrad public prosecutor, Fock demanded prosecution of Lvov for libel and defamation. The second letter was addressed to the Central Committee of Communist Party, and there Fock wrote about the harm done by Lvov to Soviet science. In the third, a seven-page letter of February 13, 1938 to the Presidium of the Academy of Sciences, Fock, without any delicacy, expressed his misgivings about Mitkevich's efforts and insisted on abolishing a (quasi-) philosophical academy session devoted to physics. Judging by all that is known, it was Fock who was the main force in preventing this harmful session (Gorelik 1990).

In the same letter, Fock wrote about the desirability of good philosophical discussion of the new physics based on Diamat. He was sincere in writing these sentiments, for we have Fock's manuscript "Does Quantum Mechanics Contradict Materialism?" (23 pp.), dated November 1937. The discussion of 1937 became the subject of the article (Fock 1938a) published in the journal Under the Banner of Marxism.

In 1937 Fock was parted from many of his colleagues, who became the victims of the Great Terror. In August, M. P. Bronstein was arrested. When Fock heard about this he went personally to Bronstein's home to learn exactly what had happened (Gorelik and Frenkel 1990). In 1937, this was a very courageous and unusual act. He also signed letters in defense of repressed scientists.

Ten years later Fock wrote the official review of works by D. Iwanenko and A. Sokolov on quantum gravity, which were being presented for the Stalin prize. In this review Fock mentioned the name of M. P. Bronstein, then "an enemy of the people," many times. In particular,

Whatever causes compelled the authors to avoid mentioning Bronstein's achievements, their work may not be considered as the construction of the quantum theory of gravitation, for this theory was created by Bronstein 11 years earlier. [Personal file of V. A. Fock. Archives Acad. Sci. USSR 1034-1-549]. The facts pointed out here provide a social portrait of Fock and will help us to understand his attitude to GTR better.

3. Fock's Work on Motion in GTR

The year 1939 was a landmark in Fock's biography. He became a full member of the Academy of Sciences and his interests in fundamental physics had moved from quantum theory to gravitation. In 1939, Fock (1939a) published a long paper on motion in GTR. Without discussing the entirety of this important work (Havas 1989), I shall single out only a few essential points for our theme.

Fock begins with the difference between his and Einstein's points of view on GTR as a whole. For Fock, GTR is the foremost theory of gravitation and therefore must be applied to phenomena in which gravitation dominates, "i. e., to phenomena of an astronomical scale," but not to problems on an atomic scale. But at the same time he assesses very skeptically (or worse) "the so-called cosmological problem": "In the modem state of knowledge, any attempt to consider the Universe as a whole has to be of a speculative character."

Fock based his approach on the following: "in the atomic world it is observed that electrical forces greatly dominate the forces of gravity," "the great successes of quantum mechanics during the last 10-15 years and the complete fruitlessness of Einstein's attempt to explain elementary particles by means of a unified field theory." Nevertheless, Fock concludes:

One should admire the creation of Einstein's genius, which is so rich in physical content in spite of its seeming abstractness. I hope this paper will help to reveal the physical content of this remarkable theory. In a popular article, dedicated to Einstein's jubilee, Fock (1939b) expressed his position in stronger words, both in criticism in relation to cosmology and in appreciation of Einstein: "one of the greatest modem scientists, whose name is known and dear to every educated man and is shining equally as the name of Newton." In 1939 such enthusiastic appreciation of a "bourgeois" scientist known for his "idealistic" philosophical and "bourgeois-liberal" political views, was already very exotic.

Now let us return to Fock's paper itself, to one of its elements which was of a purely mathematical nature but later acquired considerable physical and even philosophical meaning. This element is the coordinate condition

Dxn = 0,

where D is the covariant D'Alembertian (there are different forms of this condition). The corresponding coordinate systems are called harmonic.

One of the main peculiarities distinguishing Fock's work from Einstein-Infeld-Hoffmann's corresponding work is its view on the choice of coordinate systems. The physical statement of the problem, with the aim of correlation with Newton's equations of motion and post-Newtonian terms, leads to such conditions as the weakness of the gravitational field, its insular character (planetary system), and Euclidean character at infinity. But to solve the field equations of GTR it is necessary to add coordinate conditions, having chosen sufficiently definite coordinate systems.

For Einstein, with his understanding of GTR, the choice of coordinates was a question of technique or mathematics. And Einstein's choice leads to such a laborious pathway to the solution that the computations could not go into the publication and were cited from a complete manuscript in the Princeton Institute.

Fock, having chosen harmonic coordinates, found, as he wrote, "a much simpler" pathway to the solution. Already in the paper of 1939 he attempted to base his choice on more than mathematical grounds.

Having mentioned de Donder and Lanczos, "who first (in 1921, 1923) had pointed out the simplification reached by means of harmonic coordinates," Fock does not limit himself to pure mathematics. In his words,

Harmonic coordinates are the nearest in their properties to ordinary rectangular coordinates and ordinary time in the Minkowski "world." That is why, in these coordinates, the GTR formulas are the clearest. Fock supposes that the harmonic coordinate system "deserves the name of inertial," because he considers it most probable that from Euclideanness at infinity and from its harmonic character (in connection possibly with some additional conditions like the radiation condition), our coordinate system is defined uniquely, with the indeterminacy of an ordinary Lorentz transformation.... As it seems to me, the possibility of introducing, in the general theory of relativity, uniquely defined inertial coordinate system deserves to be noted. Judging from the content of Fock's paper (1939a), it seems that the paper is not merely the solution of a certain problem, but the beginning of a large program of work. The war interrupted this work, however, and Fock came to be busy with more applied physical problems.

4. The Contribution of Nikolaus Copernicus to the General Theory of Relativity

The first postwar testimony of Fock's reflections on gravity is his rather short paper (1947) dedicated to Copernicus's jubilee. Why did he write on Copernicus? There are no other traces of Fock's interest in the history of science outside the twentieth century.

It is possible to point out several very different causes. In the ideological life of the postwar USSR, the most "militant materialism" reigned. Idealism (crossed with anti-patriotism and cosmopolitanism) was attacked in different fields of science. Debates over the state ideology of Marxism-Stalinism became very leaden, strictly black and white, or, more exactly, red and white. The list of saints and enemies of progress had been formed, and Copernicus had one of the most respectable places among the heroes of science. The state attention to the great Polish founder of the new astronomy was strengthened by state political interests in Eastern Europe.

In Soviet ideology, the positive Copernicus was indissolubly connected with the negative Ptolemy. In a paper, the first in the jubilee volume, Idelson (1947), side by side with a profound analysis of Copernicus's works, had to mention also "the wise words of comrade I. V. Stalin," which consisted only of the phrase "decayed system of Ptolemy."

And it is the pair "Ptolemy-Copernicus" that cast a shadow on general relativity. Of course, the shadow was due not to these classics themselves but to the soldiers of the cause of the one true philosophy. Being ignoramuses in physics, they looked for philosophical mistakes only in popular texts. In such texts dealing with GTR, in order to explain the basic ideas (or for effect), the equal correctness of Ptolemy's and Copernicus's points of view was asserted, e. g., Friedmann 1923; Einstein and Infeld 1938.

In contrast with other articles of the jubilee volume, Fock did not base his article on an appropriate historical interest in 400-year-old events. In spite of the title of his article, it was not his aim to illuminate the relationship between Copernicus and Ptolemy by means of GTR. To the contrary, he preferred to use a controversy, solved long ago, in order to illuminate his understanding of GTR as a geometric theory of gravity. A second and no less important aim was to defend Einstein's theory against ignorant and malicious critics.

In short, in Fock's article of 1947 were present all the main elements of his treatment of GTR (which henceforth he named "Einstein's theory of gravity"):

(1) the radical devaluation of the principles of general relativity, covariance and equivalence;

(2) the possibility of introducing

as space and time coordinates those variables which are quite analogous to the rectangular Cartesian coordinates and the time coordinates of the special theory of relativity (harmonic coordinates).... The essential condition for this is the requirement of pseudo-euclidean geometry of space-time at infinity...; this requirement is satisfied for systems of masses like a solar system. (Pock 1947, p. 185)

Based on this, Fock firmly rehabilitated "the immortal creation of Copernicusthe heliocentric theory of the solar system."

Fock's argumentation, which has been recounted many times since, is well known due to his monograph of 1955 (2nd edition in 1961 and English editions in 1959, 1964). That is why we may consider only the principal relevant circumstances from 1947 to the mid 1950s.

5. Fock's "Theory of Space, Time and Gravity" against the Background of His Gravity, His Time, and His Space

The next publication on the theory of gravitation that Fock prepared was in 1948. It was based on his pre-war work. In addition to concrete results, he also developed his understanding of the fundamental ideas of Einstein's theory. Admitting the historical, heuristic role of the principle of equivalence, Fock denies its validity in the complete theory. He also denies any particular physical role of covariance and general relativity as a more general relativity than in the special theory of relativity. For Fock, Einstein's theory is solely a geometrical theory of gravity. In his words: "I gave a detailed account of my point of view on Einstein's theory of gravity because Einstein's point of view, which I consider as wrong, is dominant up to today" (Fock 1950. p. 70).

The end of the 1940s and the beginning of the 1950s in the USSR were not very suitable years for pure, subtle theory. Soviet physics found itself under the strongest social pressure. After a notorious session of VASHNIL in 1948 had devastated Soviet biology, a similar session was prepared for physics. The unhealthy ambitions of some physicists in unhealthy social conditions were embodied in the struggle against "physical idealism, anti-patriotism and cosmopolitanism." In this struggle, V. Fock was of course on the side of genuine science, defending relativistic and quantum physics and scientific ethics (Gorelik 1991). He based this activity also on Diamat (Fock 1949).

It was at this same difficult time that discussion of the foundations of relativity was revived by publication in 1950 of lectures delivered by L. I. Mandelshtam in the 1930s (Mandelshtam died in 1944). In these lectures, in particular, an operational approach to physical concepts was used and attention was paid to conventional elements in the definitions of the special theory of relativity. Fock, in his review (1951), gave a high estimate of the scientific and pedagogic significance of Mandelshtam's lectures but criticized the operational and conventional elements.

The question, however, which had been the subject of a methodological analysis of a physical theory for Fock, became a crime for ignorant philosophical overseers. They attacked "bourgeois idealism" on the whole, "reactionary Einsteinism" (Maksimov 1952) in particular and Mandelshtam with his school as "the seed-bed of idealism in USSR" especially; to "physical idealism" it was easy to add also anti-"cosmopolitan" arguments because there were a great many Jews among Soviet physicist-theorists. One of the highest ranking among these philosophical overseers was A. A. Maksimov (1891-1976).

The main defender of genuine science was the academician Fock, whose arguments were both scientific and Diamatic. He demolished Maksimov in the leading philosophical journal (Fock 1953a)and Maksimov was on the journal's editorial board.

It was in just such a social atmosphere that Fock went on to elaborate his treatment of Einstein's theory of gravity.

In a sense, 1955 became the year of summation. In that year Fock's monograph The Theory of Space, Time and Gravity was published, but for our theme a much less scientific article written by Fock for the principal Soviet newspaper Pravda is more interesting. This article was entitled "Half a Century of Great Discovery. About the Theory of Relativity by Albert Einstein." We have the good fortune of looking at this article through the eyes of two remarkable contemporariesacademicians Igor Tamm and Vladimir Fockbecause of letters they exchanged on November 13 and 17, 1955. [Personal file of V. A. Fock. Archives Acad. Sci. USSR  1034-3-691: 31-32; 1034-3-160: 8-10].

Judging from the correspondence they kept (the earliest letter is dated 1929) and the testimony of their colleagues, these outstanding Soviet theorists were connected by a mutual respect in both scientific and moral spheres.

The manuscript of Fock's article was sent to Tamm from Pravda for his information. It was his reaction to this article that led to Tamm's letter. Having recalled Fock's anti-Maksimov article of 1953 approvingly, Tamm expressed his doubts about the appropriateness of a polemic with Einstein and the discussion of his philosophical errors in a jubilee newspaper article. In the same letter Tamm invited Fock (with great respect for his "fundamental works in quantum electrodynamics and theory of space and time") to take part in investigations on quantizing space-time. This idea attracted Tamm's attention very much then.

Fock's letter, clear and detailed, answers all Tamm's remarks in the following way. He had not intended to write a praising, jubilee article, he explained, but a critical review of a published book (the Russian translation of Einstein's The Meaning of Relativity). The article turned out to be rather difficult, but its subject was fairly difficult too. "Einstein is a great physicist, but he is not a very good mathematician," Fock wrote.

His mathematical errors have to be pointed out. For Einstein's reputation it is useful to cleanse his theory of erroneous statements. It would be a tactical mistake to keep silent about Einstein's erroneous philosophical statements. The only way for physics to get immunity from philosophical attacks is to admit philosophical errors by physicists themselves and to separate these errors from the entity of theory. Fock concluded: Publication in a leading newspaper of an article about Einstein signed by meindependently of its intelligibility1 consider as very useful because:  
(a) it amounts to official recognition in our country of the theory of relativity as a great discovery and great achievement of human genius,

(b) this recognition is made without grovelling and with reasonable criticism,

(c) the philosophical sins of Einstein are mentioned but have been forgiven.

In these letters the discussion concerned only the social status of GTR. But, in just a few weeks, the possibility had arisen of giving an account of their true scientific views.

On November 30, 1955 there was an open session of the Academy of Sciences of USSR, dedicated to the 50-year jubilee of the theory of relativity. An introductory speech was made by Tamm. His closest colleague, V. L. Ginzburg, delivered the paper "Experimental Testing of the General Theory of Relativity," and Fock delivered a paper on the equations of motion. These papers, together with some others, comprised the memorial volume Einstein and Modern Physics. Fock's viewpoint is represented in the volume very lucidly and in a way that is especially convenient for us. It is in two components: critical and constructive.

The volume includes Einstein's "Autobiographical Notes," which were translated and commented on by Fock. He begins with Einstein's philosophical views; however, his reduction of the many-colored ("extremely inconsequent") philosophical palette of the great physicist into the sharp dichotomy of the terms "materialism--idealism" seems to be a ritual duty. In considering Einstein's pathway to the theory of gravity, Fock does without philosophy at all. He criticizes Einstein's reasonings, "which finally led him to his gravitation theory of genius," and criticizes his "logical inconsistencies," "incorrect use of terms," etc. The questions are, as before, in relativity, covariance, and equivalence (Fock 1956b).

Fock's paper on the equations of motion contains the following constructive statements. For isolated (insular) systems, it is possible to state "conditions determining the coordinate system uniquely, with an indeterminacy up to a Lorentz transformation (harmonic coordinates)." For Einstein's theory, the harmonic coordinate system has a significance in principle, because "the existence of such a system reflects the objective properties of the space-time continuum." The introduction of harmonic coordinates allows the recovery of the equations of motion of masses taking into account their inner structure, all ten classical integrals of motion including relativistic corrections, and the gravitational potentials at large distances.

What reception did Fock's position find with his colleagues?

In Tamm's article there is only one phrase indicating that " 'the special and general theories of relativities' may be not very good terms." In opposition to Fock, one can see the great importance attached by Tamm to cosmology.

A more definite opinion was expressed in Ginzburg's paper, although he also avoided "fundamental questions on space and time, geometry and the theory of field in their connection with the general theory of relativity." According to Ginzburg (1956), GTR is "first of all a relativistic theory of gravity" for which the principle of equivalence is "the basic physical statement," and the principle of general relativity in itself is not physical. Nevertheless, referring to Einstein, who had to admit this last point in 1918, Ginzburg stated that he does not agree with "the opinion of Fock, who says that the 'theory of gravity was incorrectly understood by its author' " (Ginzburg 1956, p. 136).

A straightforward opponent of Fock (and possibly more Einsteinian than Einstein himself) was L. Infeld, who, in the same memorial volume, wrote:

I am not in agreement with Professor Fock that one should add certain conditions to the theory of relativity, the conditions picking out harmonic systems. During my visit in the Soviet Union (1955), I, to my great surprise, have been convinced that Professor Fock stands apart in this question, and that physicists of such caliber as Landau, Tamm, and Ginzburg are in disagreement with his attitude. (Infeld 1956, p. 238) This discrepancy, this communication gap between Fock and his physicist colleagues, was maintained for many years, up to his death, in spite of his persistent efforts to elucidate his viewpoint (Fock 1967; Ginzburg 1973). One may find clear testimony of the failure of his efforts in the volume published in the USSR on Einstein's centenary that collected major works in the theory of gravity (Albert Einstein i teoria gravitatsii, 1979). This volume contains two of Fock's papers (1929, 1939a), but on the volume's jacket there is the phrase: "... general theory of relativity, i. e., mechanics of arbitrary accelerated system...."

6. Principles of Relativity and Complementarity for the History of Physics

Thinking over the communication gap between Fock and Tamm (as expressed in their letters), or, more generally, between Fock and his physicist colleagues, both in scientific-methodological and in social-philosophical spheres, one should avoid a quick and simple judgement over who was right and who was wrong. Both positions were pure and honest, but the difference that could not be removed stemmed from the difference in their personalities.

To comprehend this situation, a historian of physics might take a lesson from the experience of 20th-century physics. In our case one might take a lesson from a short article written by Fock himself. While summing up the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics epistemologically, and their experience of dealing with non-absolute truths, Fock concluded:

As the history of the development of science shows, general principles established for one field of knowledge may be applicable also in other fields. I believe that such general character is possessed by the principle of relativity to the means of observation. In this is its philosophical meaning. (Fock 1971) Of course, in the history of science, to determine a "frame of reference" or "means of observation" for an outstanding scientist is much more difficult than in special relativity or in quantum mechanics. But only after having determined the "direction vectors" of the scientist's world view and having tied these vectors to his unique personality can a historian hope to comprehend his life path.

Now it is time to connect the fairly heterogeneous events from Fock's biography as described above. To connect them with one life line, first of all, it is necessary to describe his frame of life references. One should begin with the vectors characterizing his scientific standpoint, because, for a genuine scientist, and for Fock especially, these vectors are the most important.

According to the prominent experimental physicists P. Kapitsa and D. Rozhdestvensky, who knew Fock very well, "This is a man detached from common life due to his almost absolute deafness. The whole of his life is persistent work with scientific problems"; "Fock thinks by mathematical images and it is very difficult for him to go deeply into the mentality of an experimentalist or average man, in spite of his permanent readiness to help everybody who asks him" (Kapitsa 1989, p. 124; Frenkel 1990, p. 150; [Personal File of V. A. Fock] Archives Russian Acad. Sci. 411-14-127, p. 6 [note 1]). This is, why one should turn to Fock's philosophy and social conduct only after having considered his scientific psychology.

If one had to characterize the foundation of Fock's frame of mental references in two words, they seem to be "mathematicity and sobriety." One may consider as key his phrases such as "The correct mathematical framing of a physical problem always must ensure the uniqueness of a solution" (Fock 1956c, p. 160). Mathematicity itself does not exclude a romantic attitude to physics (e. g., H. Weyl), but Fock was an anti-romantic.

Without taking this into account, it would be rather comical to see Fock criticizing Einstein's intermediate inferences that led to his theory of genius. Here Fock recalled Einstein's confession that his mathematical intuition was not sufficiently strong (Fock 1956b, p. 79). But a physicist would prefer to recall other words of Einstein: "Unless one sins against logic one generally gets nowhere; or, one cannot build a house or construct a bridge without using a scaffold which is really not one of its basic parts" (Einstein 1953, p. 147).

Fock had "the means of observation" to appreciate Einstein's achievements of genius and he did admit that Einstein had achieved his results by means of these "incorrect" concepts and inferences, but to go mentally into this incorrect practice was, for Fock, precluded by his mathematical powers. It was quite clear to Fock (as well as to his colleague-geometricians) that in Riemann geometry, the zero-curvature case has the most symmetry, that the principle of equivalence cannot be formulated inside GTR.

If there are perfect, exactly defined mathematical structures, why should one not set aside logically dubious constructs without exact mathematical meaning, regardless of their historical merits? If the building is finished, why should one not take the scaffold away?

This applies to the principle of equivalence and to the idea of general relativity, which were important for creating GTR but then dissolved in its mathematical structure. The same applies to the operational analysis of definitions, by means of which L. Mandelshtam introduced the special theory of relativity (STR) in his lectures. For a mathematician, in the latter case, to describe Minkowski space is quite enough. But for a physicist, even aside from pedagogics, it is not enough.

Einstein modeled physics with the following epistemological scheme:

E =>A => S => E,

where E is the variety of immediate experiences of the senses, A is a system of axioms, and S are statements deduced (Einstein 1952, p. 137). Mathematical physics (as represented by Fock) reigns over the section A S, while theoretical physics deals with the sections E => A and S => E.

Fock reproached Einstein by saying "his general inferences proceed as if they did not take into account that any physical theory is approximative in essence" (Fock 1956b, p. 74). The physicist-theorist looking for a new system of axioms certainly does have to forget that it is approximate. At the same time, in order to be prepared for the coexistence and succession of different axiom systems, he should pay special attention to the section E => A.

Fock's attitude toward cosmology was especially revealing, if one remembers that nonstatic cosmology was born in front of him. Of course, his concern was not with the mathematical side of cosmological solutions, but rather with their physical meaning. In 1939 he disassociated himself from cosmological speculations and even reproached them. Later, and up to the end of his life, Fock mentioned formally or described very briefly the mathematics of cosmological applications of GTR, but certainly, in his heart, there were no kind feelings for relativistic cosmology. Cosmology as "a model of the world on the whole" he considered philosophically unsatisfactory; he wrote about "risky extrapolation" and questioned the applicability of GTR to "cosmologically huge regions of space and time" (Fock 1955, p. 464; 1967, p. 33; 1973, p. 72).

What were the causes of such an attitude to cosmology, besides the well-known discrepancy of the Hubble age with the data of geo- and astrophysics? (It had to be especially important for the sober-minded Fock.) One can see the main causes in his "mathematical sobriety" and in the pressure of his own scientific experience.

It is difficult to read without a smile Fock's explanation for his colleagues:

In any field theory, formulated by means of partial differential equations, boundary conditions (or conditions which can replace them) are as important as the equations themselves; without such conditions the field cannot be determined. (Fock 1956b, p. 79) isn't this a student's question?!

To be important for mathematical uniqueness is not equivalent to being important in the history of physics. But for Fock, who was sure that the mathematically correct formulation of a problem is unique, the absence of boundaries and the non-unique extrapolation of cosmological conditions could not replace the clear boundary conditions in the island problem (isolated system).

The theoretical necessity of the relativistic generalization of celestial mechanics was based on a centuries-old, solid foundation, but behind cosmology stood only irresponsible speculations.

Such a position had to be strengthened by Fock's scientific success in solving the island problem. And his attitude toward harmonic coordinates, by means of which he had solved the island problem, had to be strengthened also by his results concerning the conservation laws for the insular system.

Let us pay attention to what Fock said about the ten conservation laws (commonly, in other treatments of GTR, only four laws of conservation of energy and momentum are discussed). In classical mechanics and STR the existence often conservation laws is connected with the 10-dimensionality of the Galileo and Poincare groups, or with the 10-dimensionality of the set of Cartesian inertial frames of reference, and, finally, with the four-dimensionality of space-time. This connection is produced in a most clear and profound way by Noether's theorem (which Fock, however, did not use).

Generalizing the equations of motion and conservation laws for insular systems placed Fock's results on a solid, historically scientific base (in which Fock included also Copemicus's theory). This stimulated Fock to "ontologize" his successful method of solving the problemharmonic coordinate systems. It is impossible, however, to build Fock's analysis (of the insular system by means of harmonic coordinates) straightforwardly in a cosmological setting. A Euclidean character at infinity is incompatible with any non-trivial cosmology. "So much the worse for cosmology," Fock thought, perhaps.

Some elements of Fock's understanding of GTR were adopted, especially by geometrically orientated physicists (the meaning of the principle of equivalence and general covariance, necessity of coordinate condition). Fock's belief that harmonic coordinates were privileged in principle and comparable with Einstein's equations in significance remained unadopted.

(Fock's interpretation of GTR allows, however, for adaptation to common modem treatments necessarily including cosmology. Harmonic coordinates may be transformed into the idea of a standard coordinate system generated by the inner metrical structure of the given space-time [such coordinates were first introduced by Riemann himself]. Based on metrical coordinates, it is possible in a general geometry to introduce a 10-dimensional quasi-group, generalizing the ordinary Poincare group for the variable curvature case. With the help of this construction, one can realize the correspondence between GTR, STR, and Newtonian gravity in terms of the island situation and the ten conservation laws of energy-momentum-moment [Gorelik 1988].)

Having described the scientific part of Fock's frame of reference, we can pass to its social-ideological part. The latter occupied, of course, not much time. From Fock's texts and from testimonies of those who knew him (Aleksandrov 1988, 1989; Feinberg 1990; Fock 1991, 1993) emerges the image of a scholar absorbed in his science and, beyond science, honest and self-respecting, responsible and fearless, sympathetic and rather schematic, or mathematical.

If a man belongs to science with his whole mind and heart, it seems probable that, in his life outside science, he is guided by his professional methodology as far as possible. But what if his professional methodology proves to be insufficient in his scientific field? What if, for example, he fails to find a common language with colleagues in spite of great efforts? There is no other way to explain this failure apart from some external factors, though Fock himself hardly would have attributed philosophy to external factors.

Fock learned Diamat at the beginning of the 1930s. His textbook was Lenin's Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. It is difficult to reconstruct exactly Fock's understanding of Diamat from his texts, which contain few quotations. Undoubtedly Fock found in Diamat something important and interesting for himself, in spite of police inculcation, a flood of quasi-philosophy, abusive polemics, and anachronisms.

Fock was not alone in his relation with Diamat. There is no room in this chapter for a general discussion of Marxist philosophy, its natural-scientific roots, and the socialist prejudices of physicists. Here one must notice only that, among Soviet physicists, there existed various individual combinations of attitudes to different components of Marxist or Soviet ideology, to dialectical and historical materialism, and to the theory and practice of Soviet socialism. Adherence to one part might be accompanied by indifference to another and hostility to a third.

Fock belonged with those who, being predisposed to a philosophical view, found a good base in Diamat. Behind Fock's Diamat, however, one could, with some imagination, recognize something close to Platonic (true mathematical) idealism: Fock believed in the existence of one true philosophy as the most general scheme or quintessence that uniquely realized the evolution of scientific knowledge.

Such an attitude radically differs from the one of (the physicist) Einstein, who supposed that the physicist has the right (or even obligation) to philosophical opportunism, taking, depending on circumstances, the positions of realist, idealist, positivist... (Einstein 1949).

In speaking about Fock's social psychology, one should take into account that, to Niels Bohr, he seemed to resemble Pier Bezukhov. Perhaps due to Fock's European roots, to the honest, fearless, and profound hero of L. Tolstoy, one should also add a somehow not-so-Russian respect for law, regularity, and stubbornness.

Fock seemed to be satisfied with the theoretical postulates of Soviet power. To judge the conformity of beautiful schemes with social practice was more difficult for Fock than for his colleagues (most of whom kept social illusions for a long time). Apart from the previously mentioned "detachment from life" and deafness, his own biography might prevent him from seeing social reality. Was he not twice arrested and did not justice "triumph" twice?!

Fock perceived the Stalinist terror (the true scale of which was unknown) as a natural disaster, saying that "cowardice does not influence the probability of arrest" (Aleksandrov 1988, p. 489), and he fearlessly defended those who found themselves under this probability. When social reality (personified, for example, by A. Maksimov) invaded his science, Fock acted resolutely and, as his letter to Tamm shows, rather deliberately. But beyond his own science his judgements were fairly schematic. He wrote in this schematic way, for example, about the conservation of energy in Fock 1949. Some of his judgments in the social field were even more schematic and conforming to the "logic" of Soviet newspapers.

Having limited ourselves to this description of Fock's frame of reference, let us, based on this frame, look at the last three decades of Fock's life in the theory of gravity.

Fock persistently, without sparing effort, explains his (true) understanding of Einstein's theory of gravity, including also certain mathematical clarifications (Fock 1953b, 1956a, 1956b, 1967). The answer to Fock was silence or evasive words or repetition of old words, mathematically meaningless, although sanctified by the great physicist. When, in scientific discussion, scientific arguments are exhausted, additional reasons are sought beyond science. And the direction of the search is prompted by the socio-cultural atmosphere around the scientist through his own world view. As a result,

It is possible that the difference between the points of views of the two schools [Einstein's and Fock's] on given, concrete questions is not incidental but connected with the difference in their general philosophical directions. (Fock 1955, p. 472) With regard to another frame of reference (call it "Tamm's"), one must say that, among its inhabitants, there were no specialists in GTR comparable with Fock. These inhabitants were physicist-theorists who could not ignore the laboratory-Newtonian experience behind the abstract Riemannian constructions of GTR and could not look at the physical world from inside Riemannian space-time. Apart from this, these physicists could not see through the mud just recently thrown at "reactionary Einsteinism."

A historian who has attempted to account for a communication gap between outstanding scientists and has found an explanation in the difference of their frames of mental references runs the danger of being accused of superciliousness. After all, he claims to see what the scientists in question failed to see.

To ward off such accusations one can recall once more Fock's article of 1971 and designate as complementary scientific creativity and the ability to shift easily from one scientific frame of reference to another. The former demands of a scientist to stand firmly within his own frame of reference. There is no doubt that Fock's frame of reference led him to outstanding scientific achievements, and the cooperation of different frames of mental reference is necessary for the successful development of science.


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(1993). "Recollections about Father" [Russian]. Voprosy Istorii Estestvoznania i Tekniki. 2: 80-87; 3: 90-98.

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(1929). "Geometrisierung der Diracschen Theorie des Elektrons." Zeitschrift fur Physik 57: 261-277.

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(1938b). Letter to Presidium of Academy of Sciences USSR, February 13, 1938. In Gorelik 1990, pp. 27-29.

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(1939b). "Albert Einstein (On His 60-Year-Jubilee)" [Russian]. Priroda 1: 95-97.

(1940). Letter to the journal "Pod znamenem marksizma" on the review by Ernest Kolman (No. 2, 1940) of Landau 1939. Archives Academy of Sciences USSR 1515-2-98.

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(1949). "Basic Laws of Physics in the Light of Dialectical Materialism" [Russian]. Vestnik Leningradskogo universiteta 4: 34-47.

(1950). "Some Applications of the Ideas of Lobachevsky's Non-Euclidean Geometry to Physics" [Russian]. In A. P. Kotelnikov and V. A. Fock, Nekotorye primeneniya idey Lobachevskogo v mechanike i fizike. Moscow: Nauka, pp. 48-86.

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V. A. Fock Chronology (Gravitational, Philosophical, Social)

1898 Born in St. Petersburg into family of a noble-scientist

1916 Enters Petrograd University

1917 Volunteers for frontline of World War Returns to the University

1922 Translates Friedmann's paper on cosmology into German

1922 Gives lecture at philosophical circle on GTR

1927 Rockefeller grant-holder in Gottingen and Paris

1929 Riemannization of Dirac's equation

1932 Corresponding member of Academy of Sciences USSR

Professor at Leningrad University

Publishes the first Russian textbook on QM

Reads (with interest) Lenin's Materialism and Empirio-Criticism

1934 Publishes a very critical review of physics books by the most prominent "materialists" and anti-relativists

1935 First (one-day) arrest

1935 Examines M. Bronstein's thesis on quantum gravity

1937 Second (five-day) arrest

1938 Successful struggle to prevent quasi-philosophical and anti-relativistic session in Academy of Sciences USSR

1939 Full member of Academy of Sciences USSR

1939 Paper on problem of motion in GTR

1939 Jubilee article about A. Einstein

1946 Stalin prize for the work on propagation of radio waves

1947 Formulates in the main his own attitude to GTR

1947 Defends Copernicus from super-relativism and relativity from super-materialism

1940s-50s Defends quantum and relativistic physics (on behalf of Diamat) and defends scientific ethics

1955 Takes part in the Bern jubilee conference on GTR

1955 Monograph Theory of Space, Time and Gravitation

1955 Article "Half-century of the Great Discovery" for newspaper Pravda

1960s Persistently explains his attitude to GTR and expresses his adherence to Diamat

1974 Dies

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