Since we’ve been discussing Einstein and Helena Blavatsky this week thanks to Gary Lachman’s “ironic” discussion of the same, I thought it was worth looking at Theosophy’s claim to have invented Einstein’s theory of general relativity, the famous equation E = mc^2. Boris de Zirkoff made the claim on behalf of his great aunt, Blavatsky, while editing her papers, and he also was the first to suggest that Einstein was a frequent reader of the Theosophical fraud. Over the years this bit of puffery expanded into Leon Maurer’s claim, first presented by (unanswered) letter to the physicist Richard Feynman in 1975, that Einstein derived relativity from The Secret Doctrine.
This claim’s most famous current proponent is another overweight claimant to psychic powers, Sylvia Browne, who claimed in Prophecy: What the Future Holds for You (2004) and again in End of Days (2008) that Blavatsky identified the interchangeability of matter and energy and the perpetual motion of atoms decades before Einstein. It should surprise no one that Blavatsky did not invent those claims.
According to Maurer, Blavatsky was at the forefront of establishing relativity as a viable enterprise in 1888, nearly two decades before Einstein’s annus mirabilis of 1905 and almost three before he presented general relativity in 1915. He also credits her with discovering quantum mechanics, the perpetual motion of atoms, and the relationship of matter to energy. To make this claim, however, Maurer has purposely misrepresented Blavatsky. Here is how he presents her concept of quantum indeterminacy:
Everything that exists has only a relative, not an absolute reality, since the appearance which the hidden noumenon assumes for any observer depends on his power of cognition but all things are relatively real, for the cogniser is also a reflection, and the things cognised are therefore as real to him as himself.
Thus, he wants us to read into this that the observer affects measurements and therefore Blavatsky understood quantum physics. Oh, but the context! A few more sentences and you’ll see that Blavatsky said the exact opposite of quantum indeterminacy, arguing instead that there was an absolute reality (represented by a noumenon, a theoretical abstract not experienced by the senses) that our senses fail to grasp:
Maya or illusion is an element which enters into all finite things, for everything that exists has only a relative, not an absolute, reality, since the appearance which the hidden noumenon assumes for any observer depends upon his power of cognition. To the untrained eye of the savage, a painting is at first an unmeaning confusion of streaks and daubs of colour, while an educated eye sees instantly a face or a landscape. Nothing is permanent except the one hidden absolute existence which contains in itself the noumena of all realities. The existences belonging to every plane of being, up to the highest Dhyan-Chohans, are, in degree, of the nature of shadows cast by a magic lantern on a colourless screen; but all things are relatively real, for the cogniser is also a reflection, and the things cognised are therefore as real to him as himself.
I think it’s pretty clear that Blavatsky was talking about macro-level events, not the subatomic realm of quantum indeterminacy. The reference to shadows from the magic lantern makes fairly plain that the origins of this passage lie with Plato’s allegory of the cave (Republic 514a) along with Plato’s Theory of Forms, which posited an absolute set of perfect archetypes that we perceive imperfectly through the prism of the changing world. So, I guess that makes Plato the “inventor” of quantum physics, but I doubt many physicists would see it that way.
OK, so what about relativity?
Here is Maurer’s excerpt from Blavatsky in which proposes what he sees as the theory of relativity:
…all the so called Forces of Nature, Electricity, Magnetism, Light, Heat are in esse, i.e. in their ultimate constitution, the differentiated aspect of that universal motion discussed (earlier) (see Proem)
Now here’s what she really said in context:
The Occultists, who do not say—if they would express themselves correctly—that matter, but only the substance or essence of matter, is indestructible and eternal, (i.e., the Root of all, Mulaprahriti): assert that all the so-called Forces of Nature, Electricity, Magnetism, Light, Heat, etc., etc., far from being modes of motion of material particles, are in esse, i.e., in their ultimate constitution, the differentiated aspects of that Universal Motion which is discussed and explained in the first pages of this volume (See Proem).
Blavatsky wasn’t talking about relativity, a theory of gravitation, but was instead giving a mystical spin to what was then the well-established scientific idea that (a) matter and energy were related and (b) everything in the universe was in motion. Don’t believe me? Let’s see what real scientists were saying at the time. And to make things easy, let’s limit ourselves to easy-to-access publications Blavatsky would have been reading. Here’s a passage from an article on “Molecular Dynamics” by L. R. Curtiss in Popular Science from a decade earlier—1879—that shows that Blavatsky was merely riffing on the physics of the day:
By conservation of energy we are to understand that, while matter exists throughout the universe in definite quantity, there is also existing, as an attribute of matter, a definite amount of energy or force; and just so matter is indestructible and unchangeable, just so sure is force or energy indestructible and interchangeable. That is, matter and energy are both indestructible, but force or energy (synonymous terms) is convertible into the several modes of force.
Or again, two years earlier, in C. C. Merriman’s Popular Science article on “World-Creations,” which goes over all the material about heat and motion Blavatsky discusses:
When all the motion of the masses and of the atoms is resolved into repulsive energy, and brought to bear on the elements of matter, I imagine that they must completely fill the bounds or the infinity of space.
Still earlier, in 1874, we find J. B. Stallo, again in Popular Science, wrestling with the incorrect notion, partially recapitulated by Blavatsky, that matter had an inherent quality of “force” and trying to explain that force and energy were the same, so therefore mass and energy were interchangeable—though Stallo didn’t quite make it that far:
When the changes in the material world have been reduced to a constant sum of potential and kinetic energy, inhering in a constant mass of matter, there is nothing left in these changes for explanation.
In 1883, we have Henry Hobart Bathes telling us (in summarizing the finding of the past decade of scientific research across the field) in his “Speculations on the Nature of Matter” in Popular Science that there is a close relationship between energy, mass, and matter and that all are related to the essence of motion, inherent in all atoms above absolute zero—that atomic motion resulted in energy and thus the forces of nature such as magnetism, gravitation, etc. “We are therefore compelled to recognize the latent energy in matter.” This is, in so many words, exactly what Maurer credits Blavatsky with inventing.
I think you can see that Blavatsky’s claims were not original to her and that she was merely presenting the popular science of the preceding two decades with an occult gloss. That anyone today could believe Blavatsky invented relativity speaks to the widespread ignorance of the history of science, even among those who have university training in the humanities. The fact that so few understand the foundations Einstein ingeniously built upon (there was physics before him) also explains why Ancient Aliens could claim Einstein’s revelation came from aliens delivering psychic messages through a special receiver in his brain coded for by genetic manipulation of his DNA.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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