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.

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35 Responses to Einstein’s Papers Online

  1. “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).”

    I think it has become rather common in maths.

  2. “My general thought is did AE’s thought and writing style show the influence of one or more philosophical or scientific thinkers?”

    Probably. Einstein had certainly read such stuff.

  3. John D says:

    Vicp: see A World without Time: The Forgotten Legacy of Godel and Einstein.

    All: like I was saying, Einstein said the speed of light varied with gravitational potential, and here’s an example in The Formal Foundation of the General Theory of Relativity dating from 1914.

  4. “All: like I was saying, Einstein said the speed of light varied with gravitational potential, and here’s an example in The Formal Foundation of the General Theory of Relativity dating from 1914.”

    Einstein also mentioned the “ether”. He meant something different. Gravitational time-delay can be understood as a change in the speed of light due to gravitational potential. Nothing new here. It depends on whether one formulates things self-consistently. Einstein didn’t contradict himself in this regard.

  5. John D says:

    Yes Einstein mentioned the ether, but no, he didn’t mean something different. See for example this and this and this:

    “It is ironic that Einstein’s most creative work, the general theory of relativity, should boil down to conceptualizing space as a medium when his original premise [in special relativity] was that no such medium existed…”

  6. Gary Godfrey says:

    Mathew Marsden, a proponent of “timelessness”, objects to interpreting “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies” as proving the existence of time. For example, the rotation angle of the hand of a clock is put into correspondence with how far the train has translated, and there is no need to introduce an abstract concept of time. So, is a parameter of time necessary, or is it sufficient in parameterizing evolution to just record one or more of the transformations (rotations, boosts, spatial translations) that effect objects? If none of these transformations occur to some object in the world, has there been no change to the object even though waiting has been done?

    I don’t know if OEMB specifically proves the existence of time, but I argue that after Einstein’s Special Relativity an additional parameter called time must exist. Rotations, boosts, and spatial translations are empirically members of a Lie Group. Before SR this group was thought to be closed. The products of rotations, boosts, and spatial translations were thought to only result in rotations, boosts, and spatial translations. If there was such a thing as time translation, it commuted with all members of this group, and may not even exist. After SR, boosts no longer commute and the spatial translations transform like 3 of the components of a 4-vector. This new group (the Poincare group) is not complete without time translation! If you observe a spatially translated object from a boosted frame, the object will be both translated in space and translated by a parameter called time. The product of the group elements of boosts and spatial translations results in the new group elements of time translation. So, if you believe that boosts and spatial translations can be done to objects, and you believe SR correctly represents nature, then there exists a physical transformation called time translation that can be done to objects. Evolution cannot just be some combination of rotations, boosts, or spatial translations. In doing products of these transformations you will unavoidably get something new called time translation. Admittedly, time translation is different (weird). Whereas you can do rotations, boosts, and spatial rotations (and their inverses) by applying your fingers to an object, applying time translation is different …you do it by just sitting back and waiting. It also seems we can only do the +t group elements, not the –t ones (time’s arrow quandary). This weirdness requires an explanation, but it does not negate the existence of the time translation transformation.

  7. John Barrett says:

    @ John D

    How is that nice when someone can just change the words to fit their own interpretation?

    “A curvature of rays of light can only take place when the velocity of propagation of light varies with position.”

    This statement would be true, because a change in direction would be required to follow a curved path.

    “A curvature of rays of light can only take place when the [speed] of propagation of light varies with position.”

    This statement would be false, since it is possible for an object to follow a curved path at the same speed. Then that is not a condition that CAN ONLY TAKE PLACE under another condition.

  8. JohnD says:

    John: people have reinterpreted Einstein’s words to fit what they’ve been taught. He said time and time again that light curves because the speed of light varies. He never ever said light curves because spacetime is curved. What you said would have Einstein saying “light curves because it curves”. That just doesn’t make sense. See Baez and note 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.”

    If in doubt see this page where you can that the editor is a guy called Don Koks. Send him an email and ask him about it.

  9. Luke says:

    ”Grossmann is getting his doctorate on a topic that is connected with Fiedlering [fiddling: untranslatable pun] and non-Euclidean geometry. I don’t know exactly what it is.”-Dec 1901 Letter to Mileva

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