Albert Einstein’s stupendous work: It’s all relative

Two professors who are expert in the theories of the father of modern physics have produced two new volumes to mark the centenary of The Foundation of the Generalised Theory Relativity.

Laurent Taudin illustrations (photo credit: LAURENT TAUDIN)
Laurent Taudin illustrations
(photo credit: LAURENT TAUDIN)
Nearly everyone in the Western world knows the name Albert Einstein. Many have heard of his equation E = mc², but fewer know that it represents the mass-energy equivalence formula involving the speed of light as he expressed it in his 1905 Special Theory of Relativity.
Even fewer have a clue about his even-morecomplex General Theory of Relativity – a geometric theory of gravitation – published by the Royal Prussian Academy of Science on November 25, 1915 – which provided a unified model of the universe’s structure as a whole.
Einstein’s revolutionary explanation of gravity had far-reaching effects. It accurately accounts for the motion of the planets, the history and expansion of the universe, the physics of black holes and the bending of light from distant stars and galaxies. The radical ideas the 35-year-old Einstein proposed 100 years ago have since been confirmed by many observations and experiments.
With the centenary of that great event upon us, two volumes have just been published to mark the occasion by the Princeton University Press, part of the university where Einstein worked after fleeing Nazi Germany in 1933 until his death in 1955.
There are two authors of the hardcover volumes: Emeritus Prof. Hanoch Gutfreund, an esteemed theoretical physicist, former president of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and currently the academic director of the university’s Albert Einstein Archives, and his good friend Prof. Jürgen Renn, director of Berlin’s famed Max Planck Institute for the History of Science.
One volume, with a bright orange-andwhite cover that includes a photo of a pensive Einstein highlighted by embossed text from the handwritten manuscript of his 1915 masterpiece, is a richly annotated, 237-page facsimile edition of The Foundation of the Generalised Theory of Relativity. It is on sale for less than $30 in print, and in an electronic Kindle version as well.
Einstein’s manuscript was given to the Hebrew University by Einstein’s second wife, Elsa, while he was on a visit to Argentina.
When Einstein learned what she had done, he thanked her for doing him “this favor of love.”
The professors’ commentary places Einstein’s words and thoughts in historical and scientific context. The heavy text, full of tortuous equations, is made more cheerful by nearly 20 lighthearted, black-and-white drawings based on the theories – all produced by contemporary French illustrator Laurent Taudin.
The second volume in the pair – no less compelling – is the 295-page Relativity, its single-word title divided into four lines and printed in sparkling silver on a black background.
The illustrious physicist wrote this two years after completing his 1915 grand opus. The “booklet,” he explained, was “to give an exact insight into the theory of relativity to those readers who, from a general scientific and philosophical point of view, are interested in the theory, but who are not conversant with the mathematical apparatus of theoretical physics.”
He was a “missionary of science,” Gutfreund said, noting that the work became so popular in Europe that 14 editions came out in the original German within a few years, and only later was it translated into other languages.
Einstein’s original “booklet” runs from page 11 through page 178 of Gutfreund’s and Renn’s Relativity; this is followed by the professors’ 13 “Rashi-like” commentaries on the 1917 work, plus a historical survey of the original booklet’s 10 foreign-language translations, from English in 1920 to Hebrew in 1928. The HU’s Magnes Press will soon issue a new centenary edition in Hebrew.
Einstein, a Zionist born to secular German Jews and later a founder of the Hebrew University, noted that “the publication of this book of mine in the language of our forefathers fills my heart with special joy. It is a sign of the change that occurred in this language.
It is not confined any more to expressing matters related to our people for our people, but it is ready to encompass everything that is of interest for mankind. It serves as an important factor in our strive for cultural independence.”
Neither of the professors’ two volumes is an Einstein for Dummies; one doubts even one in 10,000 Israelis has the educational background to really comprehend most of what’s in these works. But parts will enrich even the lay reader, especially Gutfreund and Renn’s historical information.
The books are “for every person who is curious about science and its development,” said Gutfreund. “It would help if he has a science background, but if one makes an effort, one can get something from the texts. One doesn’t have to read them from start to finish.
There are titles on the top of sections so you can pick and choose.”
The General Theory of Relativity predicts that time progresses slower in a stronger gravitational field than in a weaker one. This phenomenon has to be taken into account in calculating the distances between a Global Positioning System (GPS) device and the satellites comprising the GPS system. So whenever we use GPS to find our exact location on Earth, we depend on general relativity.
General relativity describes the synthesis of the elementary particles of physics and of chemical elements in the early epochs after the “Big Bang” created the universe.
It explains the processes involved in the formation of galaxies in more recent times.
The theory also predicts that violently accelerated matter, like that of an exploding star, will generate waves of gravity, propagating at the speed of light and causing the space they traverse to shrink and expand alternatively.
The detection of gravitational waves is one of the great challenges of astrophysical research, and could open a new window on the universe and enable us to trace its evolution almost to its beginning.
In Relativity, the authors deny the “very misleading portrayal of his [Einstein’s] personality and his life” as an “isolated philosopher- scientist pondering the mysteries of the universe, far removed from everyday life.”
In fact, they note, Einstein “was a man of this world, collaborating and exchanging ideas with friends and institutions and acting as a politically engaged citizen. For four decades, from 1914 until his death, he articulated his views on every issue on the agenda of mankind in the first half of the 20th century. In numerous articles, in correspondence with peers and in public lectures he expressed his opinions on a variety of public, political and moral issues, such as nationality and nationalism, war and peace, and human liberty and dignity,” Gutfreund and Renn stressed. “He also launched tireless attacks on any form of discrimination.”
A fascinating childhood episode described by the authors involves Einstein’s assimilated Ashkenazi parents – Hermann Einstein, a salesman and engineer, and his wife Pauline Koch – who took into their home a medical student named Max Talmud. An Orthodox Jew from Lithuania, he was hired to instruct little Albert in the principles of Judaism. But, Gutfreund and Renn noted, “this young man proved much too successful, and to the dismay of his parents, Albert wanted them to keep a kosher home and observe other Jewish religious traditions. Einstein refers to this period as his ‘religious paradise of youth.’” But, they add, later Einstein said, “I came to a deep religiousness, which, however, reached an abrupt end at the age of twelve. Through the reading of popular scientific books, I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible couldn’t be true... Mistrust of every kind of authority grew out of this experience, a skeptical attitude toward the conventions that were alive in any specific social environment – an attitude that has never again left me.”
The physicist applied this mistrust “of any kind of authority” to every issue he addressed, both within and outside science, Gutfreund said.
In a brief note at the beginning of the 237- page The Foundation of the Generalised Theory of Relativity, current Hebrew University president Prof. Menachem Ben-Sasson notes that after the Holocaust’s devastation was revealed, Einstein rejected numerous invitations and suggestions to return to Germany and to rejoin German scientific institutions.
For instance, Einstein was invited to join the newly established Max Planck Society (successor to the Kaiser Wilhelm Society), but refused. (The co-author of the new books – Renn – is a member of the society.) A year before the establishment of the State of Israel, Einstein refused to approve any publication of his writings in Germany. Only a year before his death did Einstein brake his rule and agree to a new German edition of his popular book The Special and General Theory of Relativity.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post to mark publication of his and Renn’s new volumes, Gutfreund noted that he had just returned from the 14th Marcel Grossman Meeting in Europe. These meetings, held every three years since 1975, focus on the subjects of Einstein’s works and were named for Marcel Grossman, who excelled in geometry and other mathematical fields and befriended Einstein at the University of Zurich, where he was dean of mathematics.
“Einstein came to him because on the way to his General Theory he realized he needed help in math to describe curved spaces. Most of his math skills were from high school.”
“Help me, or I’ll go crazy,” the Hebrew University expert quoted Einstein as telling Grossman. And the Zurich professor did.
However, Gutfreund is quick to point out, “The idea that Einstein was a bit backward as a young child” is incorrect. “He was an excellent student,” said Gutfreund. “The rest is all a fable.”
Because the 14th Grossman Meeting took place in the centenary year, Gutfreund was invited, for the first time. “There were 1,200 researchers there, discussing the history of relativity and all its implications.”
Einstein “understood that his theory could describe all of the universe, and it indeed became the basis for modern cosmology. People later found solutions for strange things that Einstein couldn’t explain and ... regarded as anomalies,” said Gutfreund. Along the way to his theories, “Einstein made some mistakes and was sometimes sidetracked, but once all was ready for publication, all the pieces of the complex puzzle came together without errors.”
Gutfreund, who was born in Poland and was brought by his parents to this country at the age of 13, settled in Jerusalem and studied physics at the Hebrew University. “I then taught it at HU, but I never took a course in general relativity. Only when I became president of the university in 1992 and familiar with our huge Einstein Archives did I appreciate his gift of all his intellectual property to HU. There are today 80,000 documents related to Einstein in this treasure. I studied many texts until my tenure as president ended in the late 1990s.”
A few years ago, the Israel Academy of Sciences celebrated its 50th anniversary.
“For the first time, we decided to present to the public 46 pages of Einstein manuscripts.
I planned to prepare a catalogue with explanations for each one. I turned to Jurgen Renn, as in 2005, Max Planck prepared a giant exhibition. Since then, we have known each other well, and he has visited Israel often. It was natural when we thought of writing these volumes to do them together.”
HU is a partner with the California Institute of Technology, Max Planck and Princeton University Press.
“There is magic in Einstein’s handwritten manuscripts. It’s like holding the Magna Carta or looking at Da Vinci’s original works,” Gutfreund enthused. “If I could meet Einstein and present him with our books, I would tell him that he provided us with interesting content for life. And he himself would be so busy trying to follow and grasp all the consequences and the new challenges of his theories that he would not pay attention to our or any other book.”
“Writing these books has been like giving birth. Now Jurgen and I are writing a third book on a later period in Einstein’s life.”
In Einstein’s 1934 Notes on the Origin of the General Theory of Relativity, Einstein, too, referred to the creative process, saying: “In the light of knowledge attained, the happy achievement seems almost a matter of course and any intelligent student can grasp it without too much trouble. But the years of anxious searching in the dark, with their intense longing, their alterations of confidence and exhaustion, and the final emergence into the light... only those who have experienced it can understand that.”