“Everything old is new again” is a familiar phrase to many. “Nothing new under the sun” is another. Both express people's needs for stability and order in the midst of the death and destruction brought about by catastrophes like 9/11.
World War I was a similarly cataclysmic event. In its wake, new, weird, even mystical ideas replaced 19th century concepts which paved the way for innovations that are commonplace today. That assessment summarizes Professor Alexei Kojevnikov's (University of British Columbia) presentation to 60 interested parties at the University of Minnesota’s Tate Laboratory of Physics Friday afternoon, Another of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine program’s series of weekly colloquiums, Prof. Kojevnikov’s lecture utilized a number of eminent and lesser-known Russian theoreticians and philosophers to demonstrate that revolutionary conceptions of the cosmos appeared after the “War to End All Wars” to meet the pain, suffering, and doubt that conflict had engendered.
Foremost among these revolutionary ideas was Alexander Friedmann’s conception of Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Friedmann’s dynamic model changed people’s notion of a finite and eternal universe to the unbounded and unstable entity that arose out of what is today called the Big Bang. Their work was such “a major cultural hit” that political historians like Oswald Spengler and poets like Vladimir Mayakovsky foresaw the downfall of the West and the possibility of “immortality [to be] gained from all this.” This new cosmological model enabled others, such as physiologist Eugen Steinach and geochemist Vladimir Vernadsky, to conceive of the rejuvenation of old people and of “humanity as a geological force” for shaping the Earth.
Not all of the ideas that sprung out of a cyclical universe were beneficial or rational, however. Velimir Khlebnikov employed numerology techniques to claim discovery of the “ultimate laws of time.” George Gurdjieff believed people could escape their material selves through a regimen of music, rhythm, and abdication of will. And Peter Ouspensky viewed relativity as a means to escape the horrors of this life through the extra dimensions of time. All these thinkers regarded this revolutionary view of the universe as the progenitor for rebirth and eternal return.
But even Einstein was a product of his time. Despite the many paradigm shifts his theories engendered, he rejected the implications of Friedmann’s interpretation of relativity as having “no physical meaning.” The Big Bang was as unacceptable to him as reincarnation is for many people today. In another 100 years perhaps, more revolutionary discoveries will enable mankind to quell its ancient fears once and for all and, in Kojevnikov’s words, better decide “what is weird and what is not."