Symmetry and asymmetry in electrodynamics from Rowland to Einstein

Giora Hon, Bernard R. Goldstein

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Halfway through the paper in which he laid down the foundations for the theory of special relativity, Einstein concludes that "the asymmetry mentioned in the Introduction ... disappears." Making asymmetry disappear has proved to be one of Einstein's many significant moves in his annus mirabilis of 1905. This elimination of asymmetry has led many commentators to claim that Einstein was motivated by either an aesthetic or an epistemic argument which gives priority to symmetry over asymmetry. Following closely the development of electrodynamics in the period from 1880 to 1905 and the usage of the related terms reciprocity and symmetry, we suggest a different way of understanding Einstein's motivation and the path he took. In contrast to the received view, we argue that Einstein responded to a debate in the literature on electrodynamics and that he was concerned neither with an aesthetic nor with an epistemic argument; rather, his reasoning was physical in the best sense, and most original. We will show that by providing a new perspective on the relation between electricity and magnetism, Einstein succeeded in bringing the discussion of symmetry in electrodynamics to an end.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)635-660
Number of pages26
JournalStudies in History and Philosophy of Science Part B - Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 2006


  • Albert Einstein
  • Electrodynamics
  • Henry Rowland
  • Reciprocity
  • Symmetry
  • The special theory of relativity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • General Physics and Astronomy
  • History and Philosophy of Science


Dive into the research topics of 'Symmetry and asymmetry in electrodynamics from Rowland to Einstein'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this