EINSTEIN'S THEORIES OF RELATIVITY AND GRAVITATIONby J. MALCOLM BIRD
THE obstacles which the layman finds to understanding Einstein's relativity theories lie not so much in the inherent difficulty of these theories themselves as in the difficulty of preparing the mind for their reception. The theory is no more difficult than any scientific development of comparable depth
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THE obstacles which the layman finds to understanding Einstein's relativity theories lie not so much in the inherent difficulty of these theories themselves as in the difficulty of preparing the mind for their reception. The theory is no more difficult than any scientific development of comparable depth; it is not so difficult as some of these. But it is a fact that for a decent understanding of it, a large background of scientific knowledge and scientific habit of thought is essential. The bulk of the writers who have attempted to explain Einstein to the general reader have not realized the great gulf which lies between the mental processes of the trained mathematician and those of the man in the street. They have not perceived that the lay reader must be personally conducted for a long distance from the vestibule of the temple of science before he comes to Einstein, and that he cannot by any possibility make this journey unaided. The result has been to pitchfork the reader into the intricacies of the subject without adequate preparation.
The present volume avoids this mistake with the utmost care. It avoids it, in fact, with such deliberation as to make it in order to say a word in explanation of what will at first glance seem an extraordinary arrangement of material. It was to be expected, doubtless, that this book would open with a brief statement of the genesis and the outcome of the Einstein Prize Essay Contest for the $5,000 prize offered by Mr. Eugene Higgins. It was doubtless to be expected that, after this had been dismissed, the winning essay would be given the post of honor in advance of all other material bearing actually on the Einstein theories. When the reader observes that this has not been done, he will by all means expect a word of explanation; and it is mainly for the purpose of giving this that we make these introductory remarks.
The essays submitted in the contest, and in particular the comments of a few disappointed readers upon Mr. Bolton's prize essay, make quite plain what might have been anticipated—that in the small compass of 3,000 words it is not possible both to prepare the reader's mind for a discussion of Relativity and to give a discussion that shall be adequate. Mr. Bolton himself, in replying to a protest that he had not done all this, has used the word "miracle" —we think it a well-advised one. No miracle was expected as a result of the contest, and none has been achieved. But in awarding the prize, the Judges had to decide whether it was the best preliminary exposition or the best discussion that was wanted. They decided, and rightly we believe, that the award should go to an actual statement of what the Einstein theories are and what they do, rather than to a mere introduction, however well conceived and well executed the latter might be. Nevertheless, we should be closing our eyes to a very obvious fact if we did not recognize that, without something in the way of preparation, the general reader is not going to pursue Mr. Bolton's essay, or any other essay on this subject, with profit. It is in order the more forcefully to hold out inducements to him to subject himself to this preparation that we place at the head of the book the chapters designed to give it to him.
Chapter II. is intended so to bring the mind of the reader into contact with certain philosophical problems presented to us by our experiences with the external world and our efforts to learn the facts about it, that he may approach the subject of relativity with an appreciation of the place it occupies as a phase of human thought and a pillar of the scientific structure. Until the reader is aware of the existence of these problems and the directions taken by the efforts, successful and unsuccessful, to unravel them, he is not equipped to comprehend the doctrine of relativity at all; he is in much the same case as a child whose education had reached only the primer stage, if asked to read the masterpieces of literature. He lacks not alone the vocabulary, but equally the mental background on which the vocabulary is based.
It will be noted that in this and the chapters immediately following it, the Editor has supplied material freely. The obvious interpretation is that satisfactory material covering the desired ground was not found in any of the essays; for we are sure the scope and number of the credited excerpts will make it clear that all contributions were adequately scrutinized in search of available passages. This "inadequacy" of the competing essays has been severely commented upon by several correspondents, and the inference drawn that as a whole the offerings were not up to the mark. Such a viewpoint is wholly unjust to the contestants. The essays which paid serious attention to the business of paving the way to relativity...
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