Part 2—A certain claim quickly emerged: Albert Einstein never quite said that he could make Einstein easy.
It's true that, in 1916, he wrote a short book about relativity, a slender volume which was aimed at the non-scientific reader.
Even there, as noted yesterday, Einstein stated in his preface that constructive use of his text would require "a fair amount of patience and force of will on the part of the reader." We'd call that a bit of a warning.
At the end of his preface, Einstein once again seemed to reject the idea that he could make Einstein easy. "I make no pretence of having withheld from the reader difficulties which are inherent to the subject," he understatedly said. By the end of his preface, it could almost be claimed that Einstein was offering only a bit of a prayer:
"May the book bring some one a few happy hours of suggestive thought!"
By now, it seemed that Einstein could imagine only one person enjoying his book, and for only a couple of hours at that.
In the body of Einstein's text, the demurrals persisted. Midway through his slender volume, he was introducing material with a disclaimer as daunting as this:
"I would mention at the outset, that this matter lays no small claims on the patience and on the power of abstraction of the reader."
Albert Einstein never said that he could make Einstein easy! That said, publishers have frequently made that claim or suggestion in the century since the book appeared. Major professors have often advanced variants of the same claim.
Can anyone make Einstein easy? To this point, it's our impression that the answer still seems to be no. That said, the claim surfaced almost instantly when Einstein's slender volume was published in the U.S., in English translation, in the year 1920.
Consider another slender volume which appeared that very year.
The book was written by E. E. Slosson, a respected and respectable journalist and chemist. In this excerpt, the leading authority on Slosson's life mentions the name of his slender book (my bold):
Edwin Emery Slosson (1865–1929) was an American magazine editor, author, journalist and chemist. He was the first head of Science Service, and a notable popularizer of science.In the inviting title of Slosson's book, the notion that Einstein could be made easy may have made its formal debut on the American stage.
His many articles for The Independent about scientific topics won him a reputation as a leading popularizer of science. His book Creative Chemistry, published in 1919, was a collection of articles about industrial applications of chemistry...In 1920 he published another collection, Easy Lessons in Einstein, explaining the theory of relativity to a non-scientific audience.
(Slosson's book is now in the public domain. You can peruse it here.)
Let's be fair to Slosson! The inviting word "easy" was right up front in the title of his book. That said, storm clouds could already be spotted in the book's fuller title:
"Easy Lessons in Einstein: A Discussion of the More Intelligible Features of the Theory of Relativity"
That fuller title suggested the possibility that certain features of Einstein's theory might be less than easily intelligible.
(Then too, Slosson might have had high expectations for his readers in the general realm of intelligibility. His book began with a section which he called "A Prefatorial Dialogue." Modern readers, I'm just saying!)
Did E. E. Slosson mean to say that Einstein could be made easy? Whatever his intentions may have been, the inviting word had been introduced into the public discussion. And sure enough! The inviting word appeared again, that very same year, in a review of Einstein's book.
This review was written by Arthur Gordon Webster, a highly respected physicist who was founder and director of the American Physical Society. Webster's assessment of Einstein's slender volume appeared in October 1920 in The Weekly Review, an eggheaded publication of The National Weekly Corporation.
The word "easy" was present in the title of Webster's review. In fairness to whoever wrote it, the title was tongue in cheek:
"Relativity Made Relatively Easy"
According to that title, relativity had been made easy, or at least relatively so.
Did Webster think that Albert Einstein had actually made Einstein easy? In the nugget shown below, he quoted Einstein's preface and pandered a bit, then answered that question two different ways.
Had Einstein's book made Einstein easy? It was pretty much as Webster's readers liked it:
The book is "intended to give an exact insight into the theory to those who are not conversant with the mathematical apparatus of theoretical physics." In the opinion of the reviewer, in this attempt he has been eminently successful, that is, if an essentially mathematical notion can be made intelligible without algebraic symbols. There are a few symbols in this book but they are such as, if the reviewer can have his way, no person should graduate from college without understanding. I mean the elementary ideas of the infinitisemal calculus...According to Webster, Einstein's slender volume provided an exact insight into his revolutionary theory—if an essentially mathematical notion can be made intelligible without algebraic symbols.
Einstein's use of mathematical symbols shouldn't bother the reader, Webster said—if the reader is a college graduate who's familiar with calculus.
To read Webster's full review, click here. In spite of the inviting word which appeared in his tongue-in-cheek title, we'll judge that Webster didn't say that Einstein had made Einstein easy.
In that same year, Slosson reviewed Einstein's book for the New York Evening Post. As best we can tell, only an excerpt remains on line. That excerpt also seems to warn that the slender new volume wasn't humongously easy.
By 1920, Slosson's "Easy Lessons" book had begun to float the idea that Einstein could be made easy. Webster's title floated the thought that he could be made relatively so.
Into this lofty world stepped the forces of commerce! Forty-one years later, Bonanza Books, an offshoot of Crown Publishers, Inc., decided to take the Slosson and Webster reviews and put them to profitable use. Bonanza would doctor the two reviews, creating reassuring blurbs for the edition of Einstein's historic book the company published in 1961.
The blurbs appear on the dust jacket of the copy of Einstein's book I purchased decades later. Each blurb had been edited to make it sound like Einstein's book had made Einstein easy. In the case of Webster's review, Bonanza attributed the blurb to the New York Times, a well-known big-name publication from which the blurb hadn't been drawn.
In the century since Einstein's book appeared, publishers have often been happy to suggest that it, and other similar books, can make Einstein easy. Well-known professors have played along with these fanciful claims and suggestions; reviewers have often leaped into print, swearing that the latest Einstein-made-easy book had truly accomplished this task.
Before we're done this week, we'll show you how Bonanza Books edited Slosson and Webster's reviews, creating reassuring blurbs from less sanguine reviews. Tomorrow, though, we'll start to ask this seminal question: How easy was Einstein's slender book?
How easy was Einstein's book? Prepare to gaze on excerpts.
Tomorrow: Less easy, perhaps, than is said