MONDAY, AUGUST 2, 2021
On its face, it has never made sense: We hold in our hands a copy of Albert Einstein's 1916 book, Relativity: The Special and the General Theory.
Einstein formulated his special theory of relativity in 1905, when he was just 26. Ten years later, he produced his general theory.
Oner year after that, in 1916, Einstein published the aforementioned rather short book. The book was intended to explain relativity to non-specialists—to the general reader.
Einstein's 1916 book remains in print to this day. The edition we hold was published by Bonanza Books / Crown Publishers in 1961, though it was purchased much later.
Our copy of Einstein's book is an instructive artifact. On its cover, beneath the title of the book but above the name of its author, the publisher offered a fanciful claim:
A CLEAR EXPLANATION THAT ANYONE CAN UNDERSTAND
That claim appears in bold, and all caps. On the front flap of the dust jacket, the claim is slightly scaled back:
It has long been a popular misconception that only a handful of people in the world can understand Einstein's theory of Relativity. Here is a book, however, by the originator of the theory himself explaining the theory in simple words that anyone with the equivalent of a high school education can understand.
By now, the reader will need a high school education, or its equivalent, to understand the "simple words" of the historic book.
Below that slightly adjusted claim, the dust jacket of our book offers excerpts from two reviews of the easy-to-understand book. As it turns out, the excerpts were a bit selective, but the dust jacket reads like this:
Some Book Reviews
"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 this reviewer, in this attempt he has been eminently successful." —The New York Times
"Written in an unpretentious, straightforward style. The trend of his exposition can be followed in the main by any attentive reader." —New York Post
As it turns out, these excerpts tend to misrepresent the overall tone of the reviews from which they were drawn. Also, the first excerpt was attributed to the New York Times, though that's not where the review in question appeared.
(For a fuller discussion of those excerpts, you can just click here.)
Publishers have tried to sell Einstein's book in such ways ever since it was published. This practice has continued into the present day.
(In our view, the practice has spread to PBS. In our view, PBS has routinely tended to overstate the ease with which its programs about Einstein, and about modern physics more generally, could be understood by "those who are not conversant with the mathematical apparatus of theoretical physics." More on that in the weeks ahead.)
Einstein's claims about his book were more circumspect. At the start of his short preface, he said his book "presumes a standard of education corresponding to that of a university matriculation examination, and, despite the shortness of the book, a fair amount of patience and force of will on the part of the reader."
For the record, a university matriculation examination is an entrance exam—an entrance exam for the more demanding universities of Einstein's day.
"I make no pretense of having withheld from the reader difficulties which are inherent to the subject," Einstein said at the end of his preface. In the years which have followed, publishers have tended to make this book sound a good deal easier than it actually is.
In his historic book, Einstein did not present “a clear explanation [of relativity] that anyone can understand.” Nor did he claim to have done such a thing, though he said that he had done the best he could.
In the week which follows, we won’t be trying to evaluate the general accessibility of Einstein’s historic text. Instead, we’ll be looking at one presentation from the book—a key presentation which is being repeated right to the present day.
This key presentation is being repeated even though, on its face, it has never seemed to make sense. On its face, it didn't make sense when Einstein offered it, nor does it do so today.
The presentation started with Einstein himself, back in 1916. In 2007, it was accurately repeated, in all particulars, by Walter Isaacson in his well-received biography, Einstein: His Life and Universe.
Eight years later, Nova produced a program for PBS, Inside Einstein's Mind, commemorating the hundredth anniversary of Einstein's general theory. The presentation was accurately repeated there as well.
On its face, it still didn't seem to make sense.
The presentation of which we speak is offered by Einstein in Chapter IX of his historic book. It comprises the whole of that very short chapter, which is found on pages 24-26 of the rather short book.
The chapter carries this title: The Relativity of Simultaneity; you can read the whole chapter here. The presentation is one of Einstein’s most widely cited—and, at least on its face, it has never seemed to make sense, even though it’s intended to explain one of relativity’s most fundamental principles.
Did Einstein stumble at this point as he tried to make his work intelligible to general readers? Einstein is universally acclaimed as one of history's most brilliant theoretical physicists. There's no obvious reason to assume that he was an infallible popular writer as well.
Did Einstein stumble at this point? Writing as non-experts, we’re not sure how to score it.
That said, the presentation, on its face, has never seemed to make sense—but it has been repeated again and again, and no one has seemed to notice. So it can go as our journalistic and academic elites conduct our society's intellectual work on the highest levels.
Tomorrow, we’ll look at Isaacson’s succinct presentation of this important aspect of Einstein’s special theory of relativity. According to Isaacson, we’re talking about the “eureka moment” in 1905 in which Einstein "took one of the most elegant imaginative leaps in the history of physics."
Isaacson offers a short, essentially accurate account of Einstein's presentation from his Chapter IX. So did Nova, in its 2015 commemorative program.
On the down side, Isaacson didn’t seem to notice the fact that Einstein's presentation has never seemed to make sense. Nova didn't notice that either. So these matters have gone through the years. So they'll continue to go in the future.
More than a hundred years have passed; this puzzle remains unnoticed. When it comes to efforts to make Einstein easy, the salesmanship is often effusive:
The analytical skills, and the cogency, are often instructively weak.
Tomorrow: Isaacson’s (accurate) account