Essays in Science

Essays in Science

by Albert Einstein

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The Authorized Albert Einstein Archives Edition: An homage to the men and women of science, and an exposition of Einstein’s place in scientific history

In this fascinating collection of articles and speeches, Albert Einstein reflects not only on the scientific method at work in his own theoretical discoveries, but also eloquently


The Authorized Albert Einstein Archives Edition: An homage to the men and women of science, and an exposition of Einstein’s place in scientific history

In this fascinating collection of articles and speeches, Albert Einstein reflects not only on the scientific method at work in his own theoretical discoveries, but also eloquently expresses a great appreciation for his scientific contemporaries and forefathers, including Johannes Kepler, Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell, Max Planck, and Niels Bohr. While Einstein is renowned as one of the foremost innovators of modern science, his discoveries uniquely his own, through his own words it becomes clear that he viewed himself as only the most recent in a long line of scientists driven to create new ways of understanding the world and to prove their scientific theories.

Einstein’s thoughtful examinations explain the “how” of scientific innovations both in his own theoretical work and in the scientific method established by those who came before him.

This authorized book features a new introduction by Neil Berger, PhD, and an illustrated biography of Albert Einstein, which includes rare photos and never-before-seen documents from the Albert Einstein Archives at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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“What place does the theoretical physicist’s picture of the world occupy among all these possible pictures? It demands the highest possible standard of rigorous precision in the description of relations, such as only the use of mathematical language can give” —Albert Einstein, “Principles of Research”

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Essays in Science

By Albert Einstein

Philosophical Library, Inc.

Copyright © 1934 Covici-Friede, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4532-0479-5


Inaugural Address to the Prussian Academy of Sciences (1914)


FIRST OF ALL, I have to thank you most heartily for conferring the greatest benefit on me that anybody can confer on a man like myself. By electing me to your Academy you have freed me from the distractions and cares of a professional life and so made it possible for me to devote myself entirely to scientific studies. I beg that you will continue to believe in my gratitude and my industry even when my efforts seem to you to yield but a poor result.

Perhaps I may be allowed a propos of this to make a few general remarks on the relation of my sphere of activity, which is theoretical physics, towards experimental physics. A mathematician friend of mine said to me the other day half in jest: "The mathematician can do a lot of things, but never what you happen to want him to do just at the moment." Much the same often applies to the theoretical physicist when the experimental physicist calls him in. What is the reason for this peculiar lack of adaptability?

The theorist's method involves his using as his foundation general postulates or "principles" from which he can deduce conclusions. His work thus falls into two parts. He must first discover his principles and then draw the conclusions which follow from them. For the second of these tasks he receives an admirable equipment at school. Once, therefore, he has performed the first task in some department, or for some complex of related phenomena, he is certain of success, provided his industry and intelligence are adequate. The first of these tasks, namely, that of establishing the principles which are to serve as the starting point of his deduction, is of an entirely different nature. Here there is no method capable of being learned and systematically applied so that it leads to the goal. The scientist has to worm these general principles out of nature by perceiving certain general features which permit of precise formulation, amidst large complexes of empirical facts.

Once this formulation is successfully accomplished, inference follows on inference, often revealing relations which extend far beyond the province of the reality from which the principles were drawn. But as long as the principles capable of serving as starting points for the deduction remain undiscovered, the individual fact is of no use to the theorist; indeed he cannot even do anything with isolated empirical generalizations of more or less wide application. No, he has to persist in his helpless attitude towards the separate results of empirical research, until principles which he can make the basis of deductive reasoning have revealed themselves to him.

This is the kind of position in which theory finds itself at present in regard to the laws of heat, radiation, and molecular movement at low temperatures. About fifteen years ago nobody had yet doubted that a correct account of the electrical, optical and thermal properties of bodies was possible on the basis of Galileo-Newtonian mechanics applied to the movement of molecules and of Clerk Maxwell's theory of the electro-magnetic field. Then Planck showed that in order to establish a law of heat radiation consonant with experience, it was necessary to employ a method of calculation the incompatibility of which with the principles of classical physics became clearer and clearer. For with this method of calculation Planck introduced the quantum hypothesis into physics, which has since received brilliant confirmation. With this quantum hypothesis he dethroned classical physics as applied to the case where sufficiently small masses are moved at sufficiently low speeds and high rates of acceleration, so that today the laws of motion propounded by Galileo and Newton can only be allowed validity as limiting laws. In spite of assiduous efforts, however, the theorists have not yet succeeded in replacing the principles of mechanics by others which fit in with Planck's law of heat radiation or the quantum hypothesis. No matter how definitely it has been proved that heat is to be explained by molecular movement, we have nevertheless to admit today that our position in regard to the fundamental laws of this motion resembles that of astronomers before Newton in regard to the motions of the planets.

I have just now referred to a group of facts for the theoretical treatment of which the principles are lacking. But it may equally well happen that clearly formulated principles lead to conclusions which fall entirely, or almost entirely, outside the sphere of reality at present accessible to our experience. In that case it may need many years of empirical research to ascertain whether the theoretical principles correspond with reality. We have an instance of this in the theory of relativity.

An analysis of the fundamental concepts of space and time has shown us that the principle of the constant velocity of light in empty space, which emerges from the optics of bodies in motion, by no means forces us to accept the theory of a stationary luminiferous ether. On the contrary, there is nothing to prevent our framing a general theory which takes account of the fact that in experiments carried out on the earth we are wholly unconscious of the translatory motion of the earth. This involves using the principle of relativity, which says that the laws of nature do not alter their form when one proceeds from the original (legitimate) system of co-ordinates to a new one which is in uniform translatory motion with respect to it. This theory has received impressive confirmation from experience and has led to a simplification of the theoretical description of groups of facts already connected together.

On the other hand, from the theoretical point of view this theory is not wholly satisfactory, because the principle of relativity just formulated prefers uniform motion. If it is true that no absolute significance can be attached to uniform motion from the physical point of view, the question arises whether this statement must not also be extended to non-uniform motions. It became clear that one arrives at a quite definite enlargement of the relativity theory if one postulates a principle of relativity in this extended sense. One is led thereby to a general theory of gravitation which includes dynamics. For the present, however, we have not the necessary array of facts to test the legitimacy of our introduction of the postulated principle.

We have ascertained that inductive physics asks questions of deductive, and vice versa, to answer which demands the exertion of all our energies. May we soon succeed in making permanent progress by our united efforts!

On Scientific Truth

(1) IT IS DIFFICULT even to attach a precise meaning to the term "scientific truth." So different is the meaning of the word "truth" according to whether we are dealing with a fact of experience, a mathematical proposition or a scientific theory. "Religious truth" conveys nothing clear to me at all.

(2) Scientific research can reduce superstition by encouraging people to think and survey things in terms of cause and effect. Certain it is that a conviction, akin to religious feeling, of the rationality or intelligibility of the world lies behind all scientific work of a higher order.

(3) This firm belief, a belief bound up with deep feeling, in a superior mind that reveals itself in the world of experience, represents my conception of God. In common parlance this may be described as "pantheistic" (Spinoza).

(4) Denominational traditions I can only consider historically and psychologically; they have no other significance for me.

On the Method of Theoretical Physics

IF YOU WANT TO find out anything from the theoretical physicists about the methods they use, I advise you to stick closely to one principle: don't listen to their words, fix your attention on their deeds. To him who is a discoverer in this field the products of his imagination appear so necessary and natural that he regards them, and would like to have them regarded by others, not as creations of thought but as given realities.

These words sound like an invitation to you to walk out of this lecture. You will say to yourselves, the fellow's a working physicist himself and ought therefore to leave all questions of the structure of theoretical science to the epistemologists.

Against such criticism I can defend myself from the personal point of view by assuring you that it is not at my own instance but at the kind invitation of others that I have mounted this rostrum, which serves to commemorate a man who fought hard all his life for the unity of knowledge. Objectively, however, my enterprise can be justified on the ground that it may, after all, be of interest to know how one who has spent a life-time in striving with all his might to clear up and rectify its fundamentals looks upon his own branch of science. The way in which he regards its past and present may depend too much on what he hopes for the future and aims at in the present; but that is the inevitable fate of anybody who has occupied himself intensively with a world of ideas. The same thing happens to him as to the historian, who in the same way, even though perhaps unconsciously, groups actual events around ideals which he has formed for himself on the subject of human society.

Let us now cast an eye over the development of the theoretical system, paying special attention to the relations between the content of the theory and the totality of empirical fact. We are concerned with the eternal antithesis between the two inseparable components of our knowledge, the empirical and the rational, in our department.

We reverence ancient Greece as the cradle of western science. Here for the first time the world witnessed the miracle of a logical system which proceeded from step to step with such precision that every single one of its propositions was absolutely indubitable—I refer to Euclid's geometry. This admirable triumph of reasoning gave the human intellect the necessary confidence in itself for its subsequent achievements. If Euclid failed to kindle your youthful enthusiasm, then you were not born to be a scientific thinker.

But before mankind could be ripe for a science which takes in the whole of reality, a second fundamental truth was needed, which only became common property among philosophers with the advent of Kepler and Galileo. Pure logical thinking cannot yield us any knowledge of the empirical world; all knowledge of reality starts from experience and ends in it. Propositions arrived at by purely logical means are completely empty as regards reality. Because Galileo saw this, and particularly because he drummed it into the scientific world, he is the father of modern physics—indeed, of modern science altogether.

If, then, experience is the alpha and the omega of all our knowledge of reality, what is the function of pure reason in science?

A complete system of theoretical physics is made up of concepts, fundamental laws which are supposed to be valid for those concepts and conclusions to be reached by logical deduction. It is these conclusions which must correspond with our separate experiences; in any theoretical treatise their logical deduction occupies almost the whole book.

This is exactly what happens in Euclid's geometry, except that there the fundamental laws are called axioms and there is no question of the conclusions having to correspond to any sort of experience. If, however, one regard Euclidean geometry as the science of the possible mutual relations of practically rigid bodies in space, that is to say, treats it as a physical science, without abstracting from its original empirical content, the logical homogeneity of geometry and theoretical physics becomes complete.

We have thus assigned to pure reason and experience their places in a theoretical system of physics. The structure of the system is the work of reason; the empirical contents and their mutual relations must find their representation in the conclusions of the theory. In the possibility of such a representation lie the sole value and justification of the whole system, and especially of the concepts and fundamental principles which underlie it. These latter, by the way, are free inventions of the human intellect, which cannot be justified either by the nature of that intellect or in any other fashion a priori.

These fundamental concepts and postulates, which cannot be further reduced logically, form the essential part of a theory, which reason cannot touch. It is the grand object of all theory to make these irreducible elements as simple and as few in number as possible, without having to renounce the adequate representation of any empirical content whatever.

The view I have just outlined of the purely fictitious character of the fundamentals of scientific theory was by no means the prevailing one in the eighteenth or even the nineteenth century. But it is steadily gaining ground from the fact that the distance in thought between the fundamental concepts and laws on one side and, on the other, the conclusions which have to be brought into relation with our experience grows larger and larger, the simpler the logical structure becomes—that is to say, the smaller the number of logically independent conceptual elements which are found necessary to support the structure.

Newton, the first creator of a comprehensive, workable system of theoretical physics, still believed that the basic concepts and laws of his system could be derived from experience. This is no doubt the meaning of his saying, hypotheses non fingo.

Actually the concepts of time and space appeared at that time to present no difficulties. The concepts of mass, inertia and force, and the laws connecting them seemed to be drawn directly from experience. Once this basis is accepted, the expression for the force of gravitation appears derivable from experience, and it was reasonable to hope for the same in regard to other forces.

We can indeed see from Newton's formulation of it that the concept of absolute space, which comprised that of absolute rest, made him feel uncomfortable; he realized that there seemed to be nothing in experience corresponding to this last concept. He was also not quite comfortable about the introduction of forces operating at a distance. But the tremendous practical success of his doctrines may well have prevented him and the physicists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries from recognizing the fictitious character of the foundations of his system.

The natural philosophers of those days were, on the contrary, most of them possessed with the idea that the fundamental concepts and postulates of physics were not in the logical sense free inventions of the human mind but could be deduced from experience by "abstraction"—that is to say by logical means. A clear recognition of the erroneousness of this notion really only came with the general theory of relativity, which showed that one could take account of a wider range of empirical facts, and that too in a more satisfactory and complete manner, on a foundation quite different from the Newtonian. But quite apart from the question of the superiority of one or the other, the fictitious character of fundamental principles is perfectly evident from the fact that we can point to two essentially different principles, both of which correspond with experience to a large extent; this proves at the same time that every attempt at a logical deduction of the basic concepts and postulates of mechanics from elementary experiences is doomed to failure.

If, then, it is true that this axiomatic basis of theoretical physics cannot be extracted from experience but must be freely invented, can we ever hope to find the right way? Nay more, has this right way any existence outside our illusions? Can we hope to be guided in the right way by experience when there exist theories (such as classical mechanics) which to a large extent do justice to experience, without getting to the root of the matter? I answer without hesitation that there is, in my opinion, a right way, and that we are capable of finding it. Our experience hitherto justifies us in believing that nature is the realization of the simplest conceivable mathematical ideas. I am convinced that we can discover by means of purely mathematical constructions the concepts and the laws connecting them with each other, which furnish the key to the understanding of natural phenomena. Experience may suggest the appropriate mathematical concepts, but they most certainly cannot be deduced from it. Experience remains, of course, the sole criterion of the physical utility of a mathematical construction. But the creative principle resides in mathematics. In a certain sense, therefore, I hold it true that pure thought can grasp reality, as the ancients dreamed.


Excerpted from Essays in Science by Albert Einstein. Copyright © 1934 Covici-Friede, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Philosophical Library, Inc..
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Meet the Author

Albert Einstein (1879–1955) was born in Germany and became an American citizen in 1934. A world-famous theoretical physicist, he was awarded the 1921 Nobel Prize for Physics and is renowned for his Theory of Relativity. In addition to his scientific work, Einstein was an influential humanist who spoke widely about politics, ethics, and social causes. After leaving Europe, Einstein taught at Princeton University. His theories were instrumental in shaping the atomic age.

Neil Berger, an associate professor emeritus of mathematics, taught at the University of Illinois at Chicago in the Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science department from 1968 until his retirement in 2001. He was the recipient of the first Monroe H. Martin Prize (1975), which is now awarded by the University of Maryland every five years for a singly authored outstanding applied mathematics research paper. He has published numerous papers and reviews in his fields of expertise, which include elasticity, tensor analysis, scattering theory, and fluid mechanics.

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