Einstein’s Papers Online

If any scientist in recent memory deserves to have every one of their words captured and distributed widely, it’s Albert Einstein. Surprisingly, many of his writings have been hard to get a hold of, especially in English; he wrote an awful lot, and mostly in German. The Einstein Papers Project has been working heroically to correct that, and today marks a major step forward: the release of the Digital Einstein Papers, an open resource that puts the master’s words just a click away.

As Dennis Overbye reports in the NYT, the Einstein Papers Project has so far released 14 of a projected 30 volumes of thick, leather-bound collections of Einstein’s works, as well as companion English translations in paperback. That’s less than half, but it does cover the years 1903-1917 when Einstein was turning physics on its head. You can read On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies, where special relativity was introduced in full, or the very short (3 pages!) follow-up Does the Inertia of a Body Depend on Its Energy Content?, where he derived the relation that we would now write as E = mc2. Interestingly, most of Einstein’s earliest papers were on statistical mechanics and the foundations of thermodynamics.

Ten years later he is putting the final touches on general relativity, whose centennial we will be celebrating next year. This masterwork took longer to develop, and Einstein crept up on its final formulation gradually, so you see the development spread out over a number of papers, achieving its ultimate form in The Field Equations of Gravitation in 1915.

What a compelling writer Einstein was! (Not all great scientists are.) Here is the opening of one foundational paper from 1914, The Formal Foundation of the General Theory of Relativity:

In recent years I have worked, in part together with my friend Grossman, on a generalization of the theory of relativity. During these investigations, a kaleidoscopic mixture of postulates from physics and mathematics has been introduced and used as heuristical tools; as a consequence it is not easy to see through and characterize the theory from a formal mathematical point of view, that is, only based on these papers. The primary objective of the present paper is to close this gap. In particular, it has been possible to obtain the equations of the gravitational field in a purely covariance-theoretical manner (section D). I also tried to give simple derivations of the basic laws of absolute differential calculus — in part, they are probably new ones (section B) — in order to allow the reader to get a complete grasp of the theory without having to read other, purely mathematical tracts. As an illustration of the mathematical methods, I derived the (Eulerian) equations of hydrodynamics and the field equations of the electrodynamics of moving bodies (section C). Section E shows that Newton’s theory of gravitation follows from the general theory as an approximation. The most elementary features of the present theory are also derived inasfar as they are characteristic of a Newtonian (static) gravitational field (curvature of light rays, shift of spectral lines).

While Einstein certainly did have help from Grossman and others, to a large extent the theory of general relativity was all his own. It stands in stark contrast to quantum mechanics or almost all modern theories, which have grown up through the collaborative effort of many smart people. We may never again in physics see a paragraph of such sweep and majesty — “Here is my revolutionary theory of the dynamics of space and time, along with a helpful introduction to its mathematical underpinnings, as well as derivations of all the previous laws of physics within this powerful new framework.”

Thanks to everyone at the Einstein Papers project for undertaking this enormous task.

  1. Pingback: Einstein’s Papers Online | Reasonable Rants

  2. What is the possibility that if this patent worker, though a PhD in physics, posted on this blog today, his revolutionary theories would receive any acceptance from the current physics community. How is today different than it was then? Are today’s physicists more firmly entrenched in their accepted theories than they were then? because Einstein’s theories are such an integral part of today’s world view it may be impossible to answer. Yet in the story surrounding the Higgs boson Higgs complained of the same problem. His exact words upon rejection of his paper from a prestigious journal was “they didn’t understand what I was saying.” for all the complaining about the dogma of religion, what is the level of dogma in physics, propagated by a stifling academic bureaucracy? Just asking?

  3. I was a student of John Wheeler at Princeton,. Ph.D. 1975, and got to meet with Helen Dukas at the IAS, since I worked on the Einstein-Cartan Theory (1923) and she had copies of one or two letters Einstein and Cartan had exchanged.
    At that time John Stachel of Yale was editing the Einstein papers, but later he moved on. Helen was the only one who could read the “Gothic” handwriting that some of the papers were written in.

    Helen told me an interesting story about the special relativity manuscript. A.E. had naturally thrown it away after it appeared in print, but the Zionists were hot to have a copy that they could auction off for some $millions. So Helen read the paper to A.E, who wrote it pout by hand, all the while remarking that he could have said things better!

    As far as Einstein being on his own in GR, Dirac expressed the opinion in a lecture I heard, that whilst special relativity was in the works and would have come up sooner or later, GR might have been undiscovered for 300 years!

  4. Cubic:

    While it’s true that novel papers occasionally get rejected by a journal because the (unpaid and overworked) referee did not understand them, or did not want to understand them (almost every physicist had this happen to them at least once), these days it is trivial to publish a preprint on arxiv.org.

    In fact, many journals take a link to arxiv instead of the manuscript itself. This wasn’t the case in Higgs’ times, hence his complaint.

    So, if you have a new revolutionary theory, it is quite easy to let the world know. So, no, the “stifling academic bureaucracy” does not prevent anyone from publishing “revolutionary theories”. The downside is that there is a lot of noise being posted as preprints all the time, and it is sometimes hard to wade through.

  5. David Kerlick:

    Certainly the incompatibility of Special Relativity and Newtonian Gravity was rather obvious, and Riemann had tried to explain gravity using spatial curvature long before Einstein, though with a wrong sign for time in the metric. How long it would have taken someone else to try to combine Special Relativity, where the time component has the proper sign, and the Riemannian curvature calculations if Einstein did not come along is anyone’s guess. Einstein prodded Hilbert, who, in turn, got Emmy Noether to derive her famous theorem about conservation laws. How this would have unfolded without Einstein is not at all obvious.

    The current situation with Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity being largely incompatible is reminiscent of the SR/Newtonian gravity opposition, and there are plenty of people working to to bridge the gap (cue String theory and Loop Quantum Gravity), but it might take another Einstein to accomplish that. Of course, given that the amount of effort being currently spent in this direction is several orders of magnitude larger than what was going on back then, this hypothetical Einstein 2.0 would have to be correspondingly smarter than Einstein 1.0. So maybe 300 years is a reasonable estimate for the next breakthrough.

  6. I was struck by the appearance of the word “heuristical” in the 1914 excerpt quoted. As I learned long ago from Martin Klein, in his early days Einstein was very fond of “heuristic” – for example the title of his famous paper On a heuristic point of view concerning the production and transformation of light. A search of the Digital Einstein Papers for “heuristic” turns up 89 hits!

    This may possibly relate as well to the question of Einstein vs. Hilbert in the discovery of General Relativity. Although Hilbert was certainly a greater mathematician, Einstein was the one who discovered GR (note that although Hilbert’s paper was originally submitted on 20 Nov. 1915, it had been revised some time after Dec. 2 – after Einstein’s paper – in order to make it generally covariant and to include the explicit form of the field equations. See Corry, Renn, and Stachel, “Belated decision in the Hilbert-Einstein priority dispute” Science vol. 278, pp. 1270-1273 (1997).) Somewhere – I don’t recall where – someone (Jürgen Renn?) has written that Einstein came out ahead because he understood the physics, while Hilbert only understood the maths.

  7. What always fascinated me about Einstein as a child was that he got his Nobel Prize for something far less “incisive” than what he is generally known for. And I only realized later, when I came across some of his papers/lectures in the Transactions of the Prussian Academy of Sciences, that his works covered a much broader range than one would even then assume. And maybe it was only because of it that he was able to do what he achieved. And thanks to the Internet such research into these biographical details now becomes much easier than for those who had to rely on libraries and library networks, taking weeks and months to get a tome and then having to excerpt it and return it swiftly.

  8. This is good stuff. Hopefully people will now read this original material and note the differences between what Einstein said and what people say he said. For example, he spoke repeatedly about the speed of light varying with gravitational potential. This isn’t something he jettisoned in 1911. See for example this Baez article where Don Koks says this:
    Einstein talked about the speed of light changing in his new theory. In the English translation of his 1920 book “Relativity: the special and general theory” he wrote: “according to the general theory of relativity, the law of the constancy of the velocity [Einstein clearly means speed here, since velocity (a vector) is not in keeping with the rest of his sentence] of light in vacuo, which constitutes one of the two fundamental assumptions in the special theory of relativity […] cannot claim any unlimited validity. A curvature of rays of light can only take place when the velocity [speed] of propagation of light varies with position.” This difference in speeds is precisely that referred to above by ceiling and floor observers.

  9. Thanks for replying Schmi; I shall choose to take your word for it. No doubt the Internet has made a big difference. Makes it a lot harder to keep genies in bottles. But remember I said revolutionary theories such as the Higgs mechanism. How willing are the community of physicists to at least peruse theories that challenge the status quo? By the way Schmi means my name is in Hebrew.

  10. @ Shmi Nux:
    many journals take a link to arxiv instead of the manuscript itself.

    Do you have some examples of journals that do that? I’m curious, because that’s certainly not true for astronomy/astrophysics (even though the journals let people post submitted manuscripts[1] to the arxiv).

    [1] Actually, the tendency in astronomy is for about half (or maybe the majority) of papers to be posted to the arxiv after they’ve been formally accepted by a journal, though that’s entirely up to the authors.

  11. Duroc:

    First, the Higgs mechanism was not nearly as revolutionary as you seem to think. It was proposed independently by multiple researchers, including Phil Anderson two years prior to Higgs, in a slightly different setting. The discovery is certainly well deserving the Nobel eventually awarded for it, it’s just not in the same league as Einstein’s, Pasteur’s or Watson and Crick’s.

    Second, high-energy physics these days is in a desperate enough situation that any promising new model, no matter how outrageous, is considered seriously. Cases in point: Verlinde’s entropic gravity, Lisi’s E8 theory. So there is little danger of another Einstein being unable to “challenge the status quo”, if only because the high-energy physics community is not happy with the status quo.

  12. Schmi: re Riemann had tried to explain gravity using spatial curvature etc, note that Einstein described a gravitational field as inhomogeneous space where “the speed of light varies with position”. When you plot the inhomogeneity using say light-clock elapsed times in an equatorial slice through the Earth and surrounding space, your space-time plot is curved, like this.

    Then see Percy Hammond re electromagnetic potential, where he says “We conclude that the field describes the curvature that characterizes the electromagnetic interaction”. Curved space isn’t the gravitational field, it’s the electromagnetic field. For an analogy imagine you’re looking out to sea and you see a single wave. After a while you notice its path curves left a little. This is because there’s an estuary on your right, so there’s a salinity gradient and the sea is inhomogeneous. Now look at the surface of the sea where the wave is. It’s curved.

  13. John D,

    I appreciated your comment. Thanks for the link to Prof. Hammond’s article. It’s wonderful. Guess I will share it off my blog, too. Your line: “Curved space isn’t the gravitational field, it’s the electromagnetic field” puts the issue succinctly across.

    –Ajit
    [E&OE]

  14. My pleasure Ajit. IMHO there’s a lot to be learned from reading Einstein first hand. One that struck me was Einstein talking about electromgnetic and gravitational fields in 1929. See this: “It can, however, scarcely be imagined that empty space has conditions or states of two essentially different kinds”. A field is a state of space, and space can’t have two states where an electron is. In some situations an electromagnetic field is a gravitational field. That must surely have some bearing on QED and quantum gravity.

  15. I’m glad these papers are more readily available. It amazes me how many professional people have not read and analysed “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies” carefully, but cite Relativity as in some way evidence supporting the existence and arrow of time.

    If you check On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies section 1, KINEMATICAL PART, Definition of Simultaneity. What it says is…

    “If we wish to describe the motion of a material point, we give the values of its co-ordinates as functions of the time.”

    “If, for instance, I say, “That train arrives here at 7 o’clock,” I mean something like this: “The pointing of the small hand of my watch to 7 and the arrival of the train are simultaneous events.”

    So the paper suggests the “motion of a material point” is described as functions of a thing called “time”, but in fact the paper only describes the motion of one material point ( a train ), in terms of the motion of another material point ‘the position of a small rotating (“watch”) hand’.

    So, imo, anyone actually reading the start of this paper objectively, logically, and scientifically, can see that it in no way provides evidence to suggest that as things exist or move a thing called time also exists and ‘passes’. But that the paper only assumes a thing called time exists, and passes and that its passage, and apparently ‘direction’, is indicated by a motorised hand, designed to rotate on a numbered dial in one direction at a fixed rate.

    On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies, uses the word “simultaneously”, e.g. “The pointing of the small hand of my watch to 7 and the arrival of the train are simultaneous events.” , but logically the material making up the hand, and / or the train, are “always” just somewhere, doing something. ( the fact that an observer may or may not be comparing the locations, or velocities of 2 objects, does not prove time, or different times exist).

    (in other words, in the start of a paper many people assume confirms time, and its nature, the paper only assumes a thing called time exists, and in the section meant to define simultaneity, the paper does no such thing. So logically it is important that anyone assuming SR or it derivative GR in some way confirm time or simultaneity etc realise this is not the case, and that these things are in fact only assumed but in no way demonstrated in “OEMB”).

    Therefore, imo, with respect, if people (perhaps like our good professor Carroll) start rechecking papers like the seminal “Electrodynamics”, we may see that it only assumes a thing called time exists, but does not justify this. And thus Minkowskie’s interpretation or SR, “hence forth only a union of space and time will preserve an independent reality” (paraphrased), is unjustified, and the interpretation of GR as suggestion 4d block space”time”, is also invalid if built only on the assumptions of GR.

    Instead, imo, (unless some evidence is presented to show a motorised rotating hand, does in fact indicate the passing of a thing called time) the paper professor Carroll references here, On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies, seems only to show that oscillators moving in a simple 3d direction “are” oscillating more slowly than expected, and not that the “passage” of a thing called time is being dilated.

    And thus GR may not show a merging of a thing called “time” with space, but instead only show warped space, length contraction, and the dilation of rates of change in warped space… with all this just happening in warped 3d space “now”.

    Matthew Marsden

    (Auth “A Brief History of Timelessness”)

  16. enjoyed your response, however you did hit a nerve other Watson and Crick, hardening back to my original point. Is there an organic chemist in the entire universe that couldn’t have worked out the structure of DNA in 30 minutes, had they had access to the stolen research of someone else. And the fact that that research was done by a women makes it an even more grievous crime. And to compound the perfidy, these two great geniuses showed it to her to get her approval. No, I’d say intellectual bigotry is as alive today as it was then.

  17. Shmi Nux,

    “Second, high-energy physics these days is in a desperate enough
    situation that any promising new model, no matter how outrageous, is
    considered seriously. Cases in point: Verlinde?s entropic gravity,
    Lisi?s E8 theory.”

    Well, that’s completely laughable. No decent physicist ever took
    Verlinde’s entropic gravity or Lisi’s E8 theory seriously. What
    happened was these two theories were totally hyped up in the media,
    giving the impression that they were theories worth taking seriously.

  18. “I’m glad these papers are more readily available. It amazes me how many professional people have not read and analysed On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies carefully…” Good stuff Matt. IMHO the obvious thing that comes out of that is that a clock clocks up some kind of regular cyclical motion. It doesn’t literally “measure the flow of time”. So when an optical clock goes slower it’s because the light goes slower, not because time goes slower. But despite what Einstein said, and despite Magueijo and Moffat pointing out the tautology in http://arxiv.org/abs/0705.4507, and despite everybody knowing about the coordinate speed of light, there’s this cargo-cult myth that the speed of light is absolutely constant.

  19. “What is the possibility that if this patent worker, though a PhD in physics, posted on this blog today, his revolutionary theories would receive any acceptance from the current physics community.”

    First, a blog comment is not the place to announce a revolutionary new theory. Second, your tone assumes that it would be difficult to get a new concept established, and that it was easier in Einstein’s time. Actually, if a really good new theory comes along, people will notice it. It’s just that most unified field theories in blog comments are rubbish.

    “How is today different than it was then? Are today’s physicists more firmly entrenched in their accepted theories than they were then?”

    Actually, probably less, because today we know that many current theories are only approximations, whereas just before Einstein came on the scene physics was regarded by many as being essentially complete.

  20. “While it’s true that novel papers occasionally get rejected by a journal because the (unpaid and overworked) referee did not understand them, or did not want to understand them (almost every physicist had this happen to them at least once),”

    What has happened? Almost every physicist has had a novel paper rejected when it shouldn’t have been? I think not. That almost every physicist has rejected such a paper as referee? Again, I think not.

    “these days it is trivial to publish a preprint on arxiv.org.”

    It is not trivial if you have never published there before and/or don’t have an academic address. (An endorsement is actually neither necessary nor sufficient, though it can often help.) In particular, the hypothetical “next Einstein” probably couldn’t get anything published there which wasn’t already accepted by a respected journal, and perhaps not even after acceptance.

    “In fact, many journals take a link to arxiv instead of the manuscript itself. This wasn’t the case in Higgs’ times, hence his complaint.”

    In some fields this is common, in others less so, or not the case at all. I don’t think Higgs would have been happy if he could have stuck his paper on arXiv without having it appear in a respected journal.

    “So, if you have a new revolutionary theory, it is quite easy to let the world know.”

    Not necessarily; see above.

    “So, no, the “stifling academic bureaucracy” does not prevent anyone from publishing “revolutionary theories”.”

    Agreed.

    “The downside is that there is a lot of noise being posted as preprints all the time, and it is sometimes hard to wade through.”

    Keep in mind that arXiv moderation does keep the signal-to-noise ratio relatively high. However, sometimes they throw the baby out with the bathwater.

  21. “What always fascinated me about Einstein as a child was that he got his Nobel Prize for something far less “incisive” than what he is generally known for. “

    Assuming that Relativity is more incisive, this is true. However, at the time, Einstein’s explanation of the photoelectric effect was considered very radical, and Einstein himself said that this was the only time he had been really radical in his life. Special Relativity was “in the air” and someone would have gotten around to it before long anyway. General Relativity is a massive achievement, but hard evidence that it is probably right came much later.

    There is some debate as to whether he wasn’t given a prize for Relativity because it was too radical, because it wasn’t well tested, because the photoelectric effect was considered more important, or for some other reason. Some light has been thrown on this since the corresponding Nobel-Archive papers are now available, but one shouldn’t make too much of this because it records only written stuff.

  22. “Surprisingly, many of his writings have been hard to get a hold of, especially in English; he wrote an awful lot, and mostly in German.”

    Even after having lived for more than 20 years in the USA, he still thought in German and spoke in German if his partner in conversation could understand German.

    “Interestingly, most of Einstein’s earliest papers were on statistical mechanics and the foundations of thermodynamics.”

    Indeed. He later wrote that he wouldn’t have written some had he known of the work of Gibbs. While today there is too much information to read it all, in his day not all was distributed. The golden mean was probably in the 1930s, when Feynman read every issue of the Physical Review cover to cover.

    Einstein made important contributions to statistical mechanics and thermodynamics, quantum theory, electromagnetism (special relativity), mechanics (general relativity), solid-state physics (specific heat in quantum theory), particle physics (photoelectric effect, Bose-Einstein condensation), atomic physics (stimulated emission). He was probably the last physicist who was much more than his contemporaries (and perhaps the only other one besides Newton).

  23. My general thought is did AE’s thought and writing style show the influence of one or more philosophical or scientific thinkers? The sentence structure reminds me of Kant or Hegel in particular.

    Matthew,

    If time is an emergent property of matter or being, we can see how AE’s work influenced and squared with Heidegger’s project Being and Time.