The profane emerges from the sacred as well as the other way around. The abstract and the concrete support each other and can not be encountered separately.
In working on the research for my next book I have been reading Peter Galison's Einstein's Clocks, Poincare's Maps: Empires of Time and I would like to recommend it to anyone who is interested in the overlap between social and scientific history. Galison has taken great pains to show how the most arcane of scientific theories - Einstein's relativity - did not spring from a rarefied and disconnected aether of abstract thought. Instead it emerged in a context where light signal travel times and the meaning of simultaneity were at the very center of the culture's deepest concerns.
The world of the late 1800s was crisscrossed with thousands of miles of telegraph cable and railroad lines. It was a world that was shrinking far faster than our digitized globe. For all of human history few people traveled faster than 40 miles an hour (a galloping horse) unless they were falling from a cliff. Suddenly train lines where whisking people from one city to another at sustained speeds of 75 mph or more. Even more astonishing telegraph cables reaching from Denver to Dakar to Peru to Paris allowed news to flash instantaneously across continents and oceans. For the first time in human history the meaning of "at the same time" had an import and an ambiguity to it that had never existed before. If it was 10:00 am now here in Rochester, what time was it in London?
Empires depended on the answer to this question. The determination of longitude, established by a comparison of local time with the time at a distant standard meridian could mean the difference of miles between contested boundaries. Presidents, Prime Ministers and Kings cared about simultaneity.
Into this fray comes young Albert Einstein - patent clerk/physics student - ready to take on the physics of electromagnetism, moving bodies, time and simultaneity. What matters for this discussion is the simple fact that he did not dream up this issue on his own. He did not arrive there by simply wondering in the realms of pure thought. He did nothe did not end up at his questions alone and he did not end up there by accident. The entire world was waiting for him.
To be continued...