Rickles, Dean and DeWitt, Cécile M. (2011). Preface. In: The Role of Gravitation in Physics: Report from the 1957 Chapel Hill Conference. Berlin: Max-Planck-Gesellschaft zur Förderung der Wissenschaften.

This book contains the original report from the Conference on the Role of Gravitation in Physics, which took place at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, over six days in 1957. The report was taken down by Cécile DeWitt and several other “reporters,” as part of a conference funding agreement with the Wright Air Development Center, a U.S. Army (Air Force) funding body (the report's ‘official’ designation is: WADC Technical Report 57-216). Cécile DeWitt then edited the recorded material into its final form. The report, though publicly available as a government document, has not previously been published in book form, and there are not many copies of the report left in existence. Given the immense historical significance of the conference - giving gravitational research some much needed impetus at a time when it was in a state of dire neglect - we thought it was high time to produce a version of the report ‘for the masses’ as it were. The version presented here is almost entirely faithful to the original, and aside from the correction of a few spelling mistakes (and the possible addition of some entirely new typos!) features no substantive alterations or annotations. However, in order to make the document more navigable and more useful as a research tool, we have added an index (of both names and subjects) and also imposed a little more structure on the sessions, by setting some of the meatier contributions as chapters. This in no way interferes with the ordering, and simply amounts to the addition, in several places, of a title to the presentations and discussions that follow.

In addition to classic debates over cosmological models and the reality of gravitational waves, many of the still-pressing issues in quantum gravity were formulated in the discussion periods and interjections reproduced in the following pages. (Philosophers of physics might be interested to see Thomas Gold, p. 232, pressing those who assume that the gravitational field had to be quantized to prove it!) One can also find the roots of many current research programs in quantum gravity, as well as early intimations of what would become ‘classic’ thought experiments, offering some guidance to a subject without genuine experiments. We also find, fully staked out, three central approaches to the quantization of gravity: canonical (focusing on the observables and constraints of the classical theory1); the Feynman functional-integral approach; and the covariant perturbative approach. We also find what is, I believe, the first presentation (albeit very briefly: see p. 257) of Hugh Everett's relative-state interpretation of quantum mechanics - Feynman gives an explicitly ‘many-worlds’ characterization of Everett's approach (used, by Feynman, in fact, as a reductio of the interpretation).

As Cécile DeWitt notes in the foreword to the original report (also reproduced here), the document constitutes a somewhat incomplete representation of the actual proceedings in various ways, and does not amount to an exact transcription of all that went on at the conference.2 However, the discussions that were captured are often very rich, and of such an interesting (and, I would say, still highly relevant) nature, that the report fully deserves its present resurrection if only to bring these discussions alone to a wider audience. However, the transcribed presentations also often reflect a research area on the cusp of various exciting discoveries, in astrophysics, cosmology, and quantum gravity. We are sure that both physicists and historians of physics will find much to interest them in the following pages.

By way of placing this report in the context of its time, an introductory chapter provides a brief account of how the conference came to be, for it is a rather remarkable story in itself. We then reproduce the original front matter from the report, followed by the report itself.

Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin
September 2010


As Peter Bergmann puts it, on p.179, ‘once the classical problems are solved, quantization would be a “walk.”’

How could it? As Agnew Bahnson (about whom, see Chapter 1) noted in his post-conference report, there were some 57 half-hour tapes recorded in total.