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.