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The socio-epistemic networks of general relativity, 1925–1970

Robert Lalli
Riaz Howey
Dirk Wintergrün

November 13, 2021

We report the results of our analysis of the development of general relativity between 1925 and 1970 based on the conceptual and methodological framework of socio-epistemic networks comprised of three different layers: social, semiotic, and semantic. Our computational approach is used to uncover the mechanism of the passage between the low-water-mark phase of general relativity—roughly from the mid-1920s to the mid-1950s—and the so-called renaissance of the theory after the mid-1950s. Based on this multilayer analysis, we provide substantial empirical evidence that between the second half of the 1950s and the early 1960s there was an evident shift in all three layers. Our analysis disproves common explanations of the renaissance process. It shows that this phenomenon was not a consequence of astrophysical discoveries in the 1960s, nor was it a simple by-product of socio-economic transformations in the physics landscape after World War II. We argue instead that the renaissance has to be understood as a two-phase process both at the social and at the epistemic level. The first occurred between the second half of the 1950s and the early 1960s, when a growing community of physicists redirected their interest toward physical problems in general relativity, while the previous period was characterized by a dispersion of research agendas aimed at substituting the theory with a different and more general one. We call this first phase the theoretical renaissance general relativity. The second phase, which we call the astrophysical turn, was instead an experiment-driven process that started with the discovery of quasars and was characterized by the emergence of relativistic astrophysics and physical cosmology as well as the early phases of gravitational-wave astronomy.