Happy 100th Anniversary to Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity!

relativity jacketToday is the final day of our popular #ThanksEinstein series, in which an array of prominent scholars and scientists have shared their insights and reflections on relativity, Einstein, and how his work inspired their own careers. Scroll through this week’s blog posts to read pieces by Daniel Kennefick, Katherine Freese, Hanoch Gutfreund, Jürgen Renn, Alice Calaprice, Jimena Canales, J.P. Ostriker, and many more special features, including this piece on Einstein’s final days.

Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity celebrates its 100 year anniversary today. November 25, 1915, during a particularly strenuous time in his life, is when Einstein submitted his final version of the general theory of relativity to the Prussian Royal Academy, complete with the field equations that define how the force of gravity arises from the curvature of space and time by matter and energy. The theory, which is the current theory of gravitation in modern physics, has implications for everything from black holes to the idea of universe expansion. It gained rapid popularity after its conception in 1915, and in the early 1920s alone, it was translated into ten languages. Fifteen editions in the original German appeared over the course of Einstein’s lifetime.

Princeton University Press has released a special edition of Relativity: The Special and the General Theory to commemorate the anniversary, including commentary from Hanoch Gutfreund and Jürgen Renn, Einstein experts, as well as additional content such as title pages from several language translations. You can browse through them in the slideshow below. Happy 100th to the general theory of relativity! Science wouldn’t be the same without you.

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Was Einstein the First to Discover General Relativity?

Today the world celebrates the day 100 years ago that Albert Einstein submitted his final version of the general theory of relativity to the Prussian Royal Academy. A theory of gravitation with critical consequences, it completely transformed the field of theoretical physics and astronomy. Einstein has long been celebrated and popularized for his contribution, but some have continued to ask whether he was, in fact, the first to discover general relativity. Daniel Kennefick, co-author of An Einstein Encyclopedia, looks at the debate:

Einstein’s Race

By Daniel Kennefick

On November 25, 1915 Einstein submitted one of the most remarkable scientific papers of the twentieth century to the Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin. The paper presented the final form of what are called the Einstein Equations, the field equations of gravity which underpin Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. Thus this year marks the centenary of that theory. Within a few years this paper had supplanted Newton’s Universal Theory of Gravitation as our explanation of the phenomenon of gravitation, as well as overthrown Newton’s understanding of such fundamental concepts as space, time and motion. As a result Einstein became, and has remained, the most famous and celebrated scientist since Newton himself.

EinsteinBut what if Einstein was not the first scientist to publish these famous equations? Should they be called, not the Einstein equations, but the Einstein-Hilbert equations, honoring also the German mathematician David Hilbert? In 1915, Einstein visited Hilbert in Gottingen, and Hilbert convinced him that the goal of a fully general relativistic theory was achievable, something Einstein had nearly convinced himself could not be done. Einstein returned to work, and by November, he had found the field equations which give General Relativity its final form. However, Hilbert also worked on the ideas Einstein had discussed with him and published a paper discussing how Einstein’s theory fitted in with his own ideas on the role of mathematics in physics.

The argument for honoring Hilbert lies in a paper written by him which included the Einstein equations, derived from fundamental principles. This paper, while appearing several months after Einstein’s, was submitted on November 20, and Hilbert even sent Einstein a copy which probably reached Einstein before he submitted his own paper. In fact, a few people have even gone so far as to propose that Einstein might have stolen the final form of his equations from Hilbert.

Of course even if that were true, we are talking only about one final term in the equations (Einstein had published a close to correct version earlier in the month) and to Einstein would still belong sole credit for the enormous amount of work which went into the argument by which equations with these unique properties were singled out in the first place. We would still recognize Einstein for the critical physical thinking, while acknowledging Hilbert’s superior mathematical ability in more quickly finding the final correct form of the equations. Still, perhaps Hilbert would deserve a share of the credit for that final step. Why then do the centenary celebrations mention Einstein only and omit Hilbert almost completely?

One reason is that in the late 1990s a historian working on Hilbert named Leo Corry made a remarkable discovery. He found a copy of the proofs of Hilbert’s paper, with a printers stamp dating it to December 6, 1915. These proofs show that Hilbert made significant changes to the paper after this date. In addition, the proofs do not contain the Einstein equations. The proofs have been cut up here and there (probably by the printers themselves as they worked), so it is possible that the equations would be there if we had the missing pieces. But it is also quite possible that amidst the changes Hilbert made to the paper, he took the opportunity to include the final form of the equations from Einstein’s paper. Indeed some of the changes he made after December 6 were to update his argument from earlier versions of Einstein’s theory to the later version.

Certainly it was Einstein who felt himself to be the injured party in this short-lived priority dispute (arguably the only occasion in his life when Einstein found himself in such a dispute). He complained to a friend that Hilbert was trying to “nostrify” his theory, to claim a share of the credit. Einstein complained to Hilbert himself indeed, and some of the changes made in proofs by Hilbert included the addition of remarks giving credit for the basic ideas behind the theory to Einstein. At any rate, Einstein tried not to let proprietary feelings color his feelings of gratitude for Hilbert. He recalled well that Hilbert had played an important role in encouraging Einstein to return to his theory at a time when Einstein had, to some extent, given up on his original goals. On December 20, 1915, he wrote to Hilbert:

“There has been a certain resentment between us, the cause of which I do not want analyze any further. I have fought against the feeling of bitterness associated with it, and with complete success. I again think of you with undiminished kindness and I ask you to attempt the same with me. It is objectively a pity if two guys that have somewhat liberated themselves from this shabby world are not giving pleasure to each other.” (translated and quoted in Corry, Renn and Stachel, 1997).

So if Einstein was becoming the new Newton, as the man who solved the riddle of gravity, he was far from being a new Newton in another sense; of being the sort of man who carries on scientific grudges to the detriment of his friendship with the other great thinkers of his day.

Daniel Kennefick is associate professor of physics at the University of Arkansas, an editor of the Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, and the author of An Einstein Encyclopedia and Traveling at the Speed of Thought: Einstein and the Quest for Gravitational Waves (Princeton).

For more on Einstein’s field equations, check out this article by Dennis Lehmkuhl at Caltech.

The Final Days of Albert Einstein

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Albert Einstein’s time on earth ended on April 18, 1955, at the Princeton Hospital.

In April of 1955, shortly after Einstein’s death, a pathologist removed his brain without the permission of his family, and stored it in formaldehyde until around 2007, shortly before dying himself. In that time, the brain of the man who has been credited with the some of the most beautiful and imaginative ideas in all of science was photographed, fragmented —small sections parceled to various researchers. His eyes were given to his ophthalmologist.

These indignities in the name of science netted several so-called findings—that the inferior parietal lobe, the part said to be responsible for mathematical reasoning was wider, that the unique makeup of the Sulvian fissure could have allowed more neurons to make connections. And yet, there remains the sense that no differences can truly account for the cognitive abilities that made his genius so striking.

Along with an exhaustive amount of information on  the personal, scientific, and public spheres of Einstein’s life, An Einstein Encyclopedia includes this well-known if macabre “brain in a jar” story. But there is a quieter one that is far more revealing of the man himself: The story in which Helen Dukas, Einstein’s longtime secretary and companion, recounts his last days. Dukas, the encyclopedia notes, was “well known for being intelligent, modest, shy, and passionately loyal to Einstein.” Her account is at once unsensational and unadorned.

One might expect a story of encroaching death, however restrained, to chronicle confusion and fear. Medically supported death was a regular occurrence by the middle of the 20th century, and Einstein died in his local hospital. But what is immediately striking from the account is the simplicity and calmness with which Einstein met his own passing, which he regarded as a natural event. The telling of this chapter is matter of fact, from his collapse at home, to his diagnosis with a hemorrhage, to his reluctant trip to the hospital and refusal of a famous heart surgeon. Dukas writes that he endured the pain from an internal hemorrhage (“the worst pain one can have”) with a smile, occasionally taking morphine. On his final day, during a respite from pain, he read the paper and talked about politics and scientific matters.

“You’re really hysterical—I have to pass on sometime, and it doesn’t really matter when.” he tells Dukas, when she rises in the night to check on him.

As Mary Talbot  writes in Aeon, “Apprehending the truth that all things arise and pass away might be the ultimate groundwork for dying.” And certainly, it would be difficult to dispute Einstein’s wholehearted dedication to the truth throughout his life and work. His manifesto, referenced here by Hanoch Gutfreund on the occasion of the opening of the Hebrew University, asserts, “Science and investigation recognize as their aim the truth only.” From passionate debates on the nature of reality with Bohr, to his historic clash on the nature of time with Bergson, Einstein’s quest for the truth was a constant in his life.  It would seem that it was equally so at the time of his death. What, then, did he believe at the end? We can’t know, but An Einstein Encyclopedia opens with his own words,

Strange is our situation here upon earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to divine a purpose….To ponder interminably over the reason for one’s own existence or the meaning of life in general seems to me, from an objective point of view, to be sheer folly. And yet everyone holds certain ideals by which he guides his aspiration and his judgment. The ideals which have always shone before me and filled me with the joy of living are goodness, beauty, and truth. To make a goal of comfort or happiness has never appealed to me; a system of ethics built on this basis would be sufficient only for a herd of cattle.

Read a sample chapter of An Einstein Encyclopedia, by Alice Calaprice, Daniel Kennefick, & Robert Schulmann here.

#ThanksEinstein: Alice Calaprice on the man behind the myth

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Becoming an Einstein Author

By Alice Calaprice

Alice Calaprice is the editor of the hugely popular collection of Einstein quotations that has sold tens of thousands of copies worldwide and been translated into twenty-five languages. This is the story of how her knack for German and quest for full-time work in Princeton, New Jersey led her to a career she never imagined.

As a child I did not dream of someday becoming an author of books about Albert Einstein, nor did I contemplate the possibility even after graduating from UC Berkeley in the 1960s. Such an idea would not even have occurred to me. Along with my interest in science, languages, cultures, and history, it was eventually serendipity that took me there.

In the late 1970s, after my family had settled well into the routine of raising school-age children in Princeton, New Jersey, I assigned myself the task of finding full-time work. I had recently completed a course in the then relatively new field of computer technology, hoping it would help bolster a future career. One day in early 1978, a friend told me about a new venture being undertaken by Princeton University Press: the publication of the papers of Albert Einstein in a voluminous series that would span many years. An intriguing project, for sure, but I did not imagine myself being a part of it.

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Calaprice at an Einstein statue in Washington DC (“worshipping at Einstein’s feet”).

Soon after, however, the founding editor of the project, physicist John Stachel, and I met after he had started some preliminary work on the papers. It interested him that I was a native German speaker, had spent time around computers, and wasn’t averse to physics jargon and working with physicists, being married to one at the time. He had been looking for someone for a specialized task: helping him prepare three electronic indexes of the contents of the Einstein archive. He explained that the archive contained about 10,000 documents, consisting of Einstein’s writings, correspondence, and third-party materials. The indexes would give him an overview of the archive’s size and contents–information crucial to the planning stages of the enormous undertaking.

Although the Collected Papers of Albert Einstein would be administered and published by the university press, the archive and his office were located at the nearby Institute for Advanced Study, in the same building where Einstein himself had worked during the last two decades of his life. Stachel asked if I was interested in helping to jump-start this initial phase of the project. The timing turned out to be perfect, and I agreed. I had no inkling that I was about to jump-start a lifelong career as well.

Hello, Einstein

This assignment, which required perusing and often carefully reading each document in the archive’s files, gave me the chance to familiarize myself with the details of Einstein’s legacy and life, with which I was not particularly familiar. It was also an opportunity to revive my long-neglected German-language aptitude, which had waned over the years. Einstein wrote almost exclusively in his native language, even after he came to America from Germany in 1933; his correspondence and papers were generally translated by his secretary or assistants. I was surprised by some of the particulars about his life. He was not so saintly, after all, and besides transforming scientific thinking he had also done ordinary things like play the violin and love animals.

My curiosity was piqued. I quickly became an autodidact, reading supplementary articles and books so I could put the archival material into context. Names of Einstein’s family, friends, and colleagues became familiar, as did the terms for concepts in physics used by him and his cohorts. The prewar and wartime venues and events in Germany became clearer, alive, and more personal. Berlin, the city of my wartime birth, took on new meaning: I discovered that the Einstein family had lived in the same neighborhood as my family, but, unlike them, we did not have to flee persecution. We did flee the city during the Allied bombings of 1945, long after the Einsteins had already departed for America. After short stints in various villages, we coincidentally ended up in Bad Cannstatt in southwestern Germany, which I later learned was also the ancestral home of Einstein’s mother. And, finally, both of us had found our way to Princeton, if at different times, by different routes, and for different reasons. After I had oriented myself to my new surroundings, I loved coming to work. I had found a stimulating job that suited me well. Not only was the timing of my employment in the archive ideal for me personally, but the times were exciting, too. The centennial of Einstein’s birth took place at the Institute—among other worldwide venues—in 1979. Some of Einstein’s assistants and collaborators were still alive and gave firsthand accounts of their recollections in a symposium on the campus. I was able to attend these talks.

Einstein’s Inner Circle

There and at other times, I met many people who had been associated with Einstein either directly or were now members of boards that were planning the eventual publication of his papers. Outstanding among these was Helen Dukas, Einstein’s longtime, modest, and intensely loyal secretary, who, after his death in 1955, had become the first archivist of his papers. Now in her early eighties, she still came to work almost daily. Her office was around the corner from mine on the third floor of Fuld Hall. She stopped by to chat every morning after exiting the elevator located across from my office, often inspecting the never-ending clutches of house finches nesting outside my window in spring and summer. She came to our house for dinner, and she invited my family to be her guests at the swimming pool in the Institute Woods.

At Helen’s crowded memorial service after her death in 1982, I heard her old friend Otto Nathan, the executor of Einstein’s estate, tearfully proclaim, “When Helen died, Einstein died a second time.” The Institute, a cosmopolitan place of world-renowned scholars, where foreign languages were heard more often than English, was a place where one could thrive professionally and personally.

We completed the indexes by the 1980 deadline. Because the 10,000 estimated documents had more than quadrupled to 42,000, we had hired a part-time assistant to help accomplish the task. I spent long hours working off-site in the evenings, when mainframe computers at the university’s Computer Center and, later, in my husband’s cyclotron laboratory in the physics department, were more readily available for use.

Herb Bailey, the well-regarded director of Princeton University Press who had long advocated for publication of the Collected Papers, was apparently pleased with my work. He now offered me a position in the editorial offices at the Press’s historic Scribner building on the university’s campus. My first day of work was on April Fool’s Day 1980, but I was assured my employment was not a joke. John Stachel continued his sole editorship of the papers at the Institute, and later at Scribner with a small staff. I was in touch with the group almost daily, grounding my interest in what came to be known as the Einstein Papers Project.

Fluent in Einstein

Five years later, after I had become a senior editor at PUP, I had the opportunity to again read the documents and letters that were about to be published in volume 1 of the Collected Papers. In 1985, the first manuscript in the series was turned over to the Press’s editorial office, and I was asked to take charge. I helped to set an editorial style for the series, copyedited the volumes as they arrived in-house, and became administrator and “principal investigator” of the concomitant National Science Foundation-funded English-translation project. Over a span of almost thirty years, I copyedited all fifteen of the volumes in the series—more recently as a freelancer—that have been published so far, including the translated volumes. Alas, so much reading, yet I never succeeded in understanding physics and relativity theory! Despite this shortfall, I became the liaison for nonscientific Einstein-related inquiries, book projects, film documentaries, and even the movie IQ in the early 1990s. I was a resource on matters dealing with Einstein, consistently learning something new in the process and having contact with an assortment of Einstein aficionados around the world. At the same time, I handled many other editing projects, mostly in the sciences. Surrounded by a group of wonderful, supportive, and good-humored colleagues and a continuously changing stream of engaging authors, I was having the time of my life. Those years set the stage for the twenty years ahead.

In 1995, I had an especially good year. First, it was the year I began mitigating my restlessness at home by taking annual trips to unlikely parts of the world, and I went to eastern Siberia with a small group of fellow nature lovers. Second, on my return, I received the news that I would receive the national Literary Market Place (LMP) Award for Individual Editorial Achievement in Scholarly Publishing, to be presented at the New York Public Library the following year. Third, Trevor Lipscombe, PUP’s acquisitions editor in physics at the time, discussed with me the prospect of publishing a book of quotations by Einstein. Like all those familiar with Einstein’s life, Trevor was aware that the physicist was multidimensional and fearless in expressing opinions on a variety of topics of interest to many: there was much more to him than relativity theory. Unbeknownst to Trevor, I had already collected many quotations while working on the indexes and copyediting the first few volumes of the Collected Papers—simply because they had struck a chord with me. When I showed him my blue box of index cards containing the quotations, he suggested I write the book myself rather than find someone else to do so. I was excited at the prospect of being on the other side of the author/editor relationship.

The Quotable Einstein is born

Soon after I returned from another adventure trip about a year later, this time into the Amazon Basin in northeastern Peru, the first edition of The Quotable Einstein was published. It contained four hundred quotations and their sources, arranged by topic, such as Einstein on religion, on his family, on Jews, on politics, on science and scientists, and so forth. The initial print run was modest, as there were doubts that the book would have wide appeal. The volume quickly sold out, however, and was reprinted six times. For a long time, it was at the top of PUP’s sales list, which I admired in disbelief and awe whenever one was posted on the bulletin board. Three more enlarged editions followed at approximately five-year intervals, and more than twenty-five foreign-language translations have been contracted, some in obscure languages I had never heard of. I believe these books were successful because they showed Einstein in all his guises, in his own uncensored words—a human being beyond the prevailing hagiographic and absent-minded-professor myths and falsely attributed quotations. The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, containing about 1,600 documented quotations and published in 2008, was my fourth and final contribution to this series of quotation books.

Because of the success of these volumes, I was now, to my surprise, perceived as an authority. I was asked to give Calaprice_Einstein_Encyclopediatalks for nonacademic audiences and participate in television shows and documentaries. I was invited to the German embassy to celebrate the special relativity centennial in 2005, and sat next to the German ambassador for lunch. I had book signings. I appeared on Ira Flatow’s “Science Friday” at the NPR studio in New York, along with Dennis Overbye of the New York Times. I have to confess that I found these new challenges difficult. I felt more comfortable doing research and writing, so I agreed to write three more books for other publishers who approached me.

Now, well into retirement in California, I am back with PUP for my swan song in the Einstein genre. Having often felt the need for a concise Einstein reference guide while doing research, I had submitted to the publisher an informal proposal to write An Einstein Encyclopedia. My expertise on specialized topics relating to Einstein is limited, so two Einstein scholars with broad experience on the Einstein Papers Project, historian Robert Schulmann and physicist Dan Kennefick, fortunately agreed to join me in this project as co-authors. Our final proposal was accepted, the three of us had a productive long-distance collaboration, and, best of all, we managed to stay friends throughout the process. As our reward, we are now the proud authors of a reference book that we expect will be of use and interest to an eclectic readership.

Alice Calaprice is a renowned authority on Albert Einstein and the author of several popular books on Einstein, including The Ultimate Quotable Einstein (Princeton).

#ThanksEinstein image courtesy of the official Albert Einstein Facebook page.

#ThanksEinstein: Jürgen Renn on popularizing Einstein

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Einstein: Missionary of Science

By Jürgen Renn

Jürgen Renn is a director at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. This is the story of how he came to play such a major role in popularizing Einstein.

I encountered Albert Einstein at crucial turning points in my life, first studying his general theory of relativity while exploring quantum field theory on curved space-time backgrounds for my diploma thesis in physics at the Freie Universität in Berlin. I published my first papers on general relativity together with two postdocs I had the fortune to work with at the time: Tevian Dray and Don Salisbury. I would like to have pursued this topic for my PhD thesis as well but instead turned to quantum field theory and statistical physics. Meanwhile, I developed a passion for the history of science and began to prepare an edition of Galileo’s manuscripts. In 1985, working on my PhD in Rome, I was convinced that I could do physics and the history of science at the same time, and that I would stay in Italy for a long time to come. But things would soon change dramatically.

Kurt Sundermeyer, one of the people who taught me about general relativity, brought my attention to an advert looking for an assistant editor at the Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, then located at Boston University. I quickly applied and, after being interviewed by the founding editor, John Stachel, got the position. The work I did for the edition turned out to be a revelation and deeply shaped my future career. Arriving in Boston in 1986, the first volume was already underway and included the early letters between Albert and his fiancé Mileva Marić.

einstein old lettersThis newly discovered source gave key insights into Einstein’s early intellectual biography, leading up to his “miraculous year” 1905. Together with Robert Schulmann I published a special edition of these letters for Princeton University Press. Working on the scientific annotation of these letters, I was very fortunate to work with and learn from my senior colleagues John Stachel, Robert Schulmann, and David Cassidy. Later I also profited from encounters with other Einstein experts such as Fabio Bevilacqua, Diana Buchwald, Jean Eisenstaedt, Peter Galison, Hubert Goenner, Gerald Holton, Don Howard, David Kaiser, Martin Klein, Anne Kox, John Norton, Karin Reich, David Rowe, Robert Rynasiewicz, and many others, some of whom have meanwhile become close friends. John Stachel played a pivotal role in launching Einstein studies as a field of collaboration among physicists, historians, and philosophers of science and has always been my mentor in this field. He also pioneered broad-ranging studies in the history of general relativity, a field that I soon made my own, working in close collaboration with talented younger colleagues, in particular, Michel Janssen, Tilman Sauer, and Matthias Schemmel. Eventually, Michel, Tilman, the two Johns, several other younger colleagues, and I formed the team that would produce a four-volume study on The Genesis of General Relativity, published with Springer in 2007. But this is getting ahead of things.

In the late 1980s, commuting between Boston and Berlin, I also collaborated closely with the exceptional science historian and native Berliner Peter Damerow, who was always a great source of inspiration for my work. Together with an Italian colleague, Paolo Galluzzi, Peter and I developed a vision to create an electronic Galileo-Einstein Archive which would make all of Galileo’s and Einstein’s archival resources openly available in digital form. The idea was supported by the NSF and its program director Ron Overman, and we used the grant they subsequently awarded to explore our vision of an electronic archive in hypertext format. Like-minded colleagues all over the world were contacted, including the people who were just then creating the Web at CERN in Geneva. But our vision was evidently premature and the result was eventually limited to an electronic archive of Galileo’s manuscripts on mechanics. This was realized only after the foundation of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science where I became a director in 1994. It took the persistence and courage of the current director of the Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, Diana Buchwald, supported by Prineinstein old letterceton University Press, to eventually realize over twenty years later the vision of a freely accessible Digital Einstein Archive.

The Genesis of General Relativity was the first major collaborative research project of the newly founded Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. Today, the collaboration endures as the new image to emerge from this study of Einstein’s most important achievement continues to be developed. The project has also been expanded by the work of younger colleagues at the institute such as Alex Blum and Roberto Lalli. Together with one of the founders of the project, Michel Janssen, another colleague, Christoph Lehner, recently published the Cambridge Companion to Einstein. The research undertaken in this field is not confined to the intellectual dimension of Einstein’s work, however, but also extends to the cultural and political contexts, as is illustrated by Milena Wazeck’s study Einstein’s Opponents, or by Giuseppe Castagnetti’s and Hubert Goenner’s studies on the institutional contexts. I plan to bring some of these perspectives together in my forthcoming book on Einstein, entitled On the Shoulders of Giants and Dwarfs.

Einstein’s engagement as a missionary and popularizer of science has made a deep impression on me and it is in this spirit that my collaborators and I became involved in the Einstein Year 2005, when the centenary of Einstein’s miraculous year was celebrated. The centerpiece of this celebration in Germany was the extensive exhibition “Albert Einstein — Chief Engineer of the Universe,” an online presentation of which can still be seen today.

relativity 100 yearsWorking with other scholars on Einstein’s life and work continues to be a great source of inspiration for me. I am particularly grateful for the friendships that have developed from my various collaborations. One striking example is my friendship with Hanoch Gutfreund, a great scholar, an interminable source of energy, and a wonderful human being. With Hanoch, I recently wrote two books for Princeton University Press, The Road to Relativity and Relativity: The Special and the General Theory. 100th Anniversary Edition. In preparing these books, we developed a common style of popularization without compromising on scientific rigor. Having met late in life, we are all the more determined to write many more books together.

Jürgen Renn is a director at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. His books include The Road to Relativity.

Einstein graphic courtesy of the Albert Einstein Facebook page.

#ThanksEinstein: J.P. Ostriker on Einstein and the wonder of pure thought

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Questions with No Reply

J. P. Ostriker

J.P. Ostriker is an astrophysicist and the co-author of Heart of Darkness, which tells the saga of humankind’s quest to unravel the deepest secrets of the universe: dark matter and dark energy. Here is his story about how an Einstein thought experiment he encountered as a teenager changed his life.

When I was a high school student I drove my teachers crazy with incessant and insatiable curiosity about the natural world. Next to our pictures in the yearbook, one of the teachers had added a line for each student and for me it was “I thought of questions that have no reply.”

And for the questions that I had that my teachers could not or would not answer, I went to books. Einstein wrote several of these that were accessible to high school students, and they fascinated me. I remember a “thought experiment” presented in one of them: A scientist sets up an exquisite laboratory on a train and tests both Newton’s laws of mechanics and Maxwell’s laws of electricity and magnetism. And, hypothetically, one finds that both are correct to arbitrary precision.

train image, copyright: phildaintThen the train begins to move and E shows that, since the laws transform differently with the velocity of the observer, they can no longer both be true! Therefore one (or both) theories must be false.

This amazed me. No experiment was necessary. Pure thought was all that was needed and any high school student who thought about it could have come to the same conclusion as Einstein, and could have invented special relativity to solve the problem! I thought that this was wonderful, truly wonderful. I resolved that I would pursue physics and think about simple and fundamental matters. It looked easy.

Well, needless to say it was not always easy, but it has always been fun. I’m thankful I had access to Einstein’s popular books when I was a teenager with more questions than answers.

Jeremiah P. Ostriker is professor of astrophysical sciences at Princeton University. He is author, with Simon Mitton, of Heart of Darkness: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Invisible Universe. His books include Formation of Structure in the Universe and Unsolved Problems in Astrophysics (Princeton).

 

Train tracks image from Shutterstock, copyright: phildaint