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Black holes may obliterate most things that come near them, but they saved the theory of general relativity. Einstein's theory was quickly accepted as the true theory of gravity after its publication in 1915, but soon took a back seat in physics to quantum mechanics and languished for decades on the blackboards of mathematicians. Not until the existence of black holes by Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose in the 1960s, after Einstein's death, was the theory revived.
Almost one hundred years after general relativity replaced Newton's theory of gravitation, The Curious History of Relativity tells the story of both events surrounding general relativity and the techniques employed by Einstein and the relativists to construct, develop, and understand his almost impenetrable theory. Jean Eisenstaedt, one of the world's leading experts on the subject, also discusses the theory's place in the evolution of twentieth-century physics. He describes the main stages in the development of general relativity: its beginnings, its strange crossing of the desert during Einstein's lifetime while under heated criticism, and its new life from the 1960s on, when it became vital to the understanding of black holes and the observation of exotic objects, and, eventually, to the discovery of the accelerating universe. We witness Einstein's construction of his theory, as well as the work of his fascinated, discouraged, and enthusiastic colleagues--physicists, mathematicians, and astronomers.
Written with flair, The Curious History of Relativity poses--and answers--the difficult questions raised by Einstein's magnificent intellectual feat.
"In this English translation, Eisenstaedt . . . reviews how Einstein developed the theory that would supplant Newton's principles of gravity. The author reviews the period from the 1920s to the 1950s, during which Einstein confronted his critics. Finally, Eisenstaedt ponders what will become of general relativity as today's physicists search for a unifying theory of the quantum and gravitational domains."--Science News
Praise for the original, French edition: "With its limpid prose, this book reads like a novel. . . . It is a treasure for all those who seek to understand Einstein's theory."--Ciel & Espace
"What makes his book stand out among the legion of other titles on Einstein and relativity is the historical context into which Eisenstaedt places his scientific discussion."--Library Journal
Praise for the original, French edition: "Eisenstaedt's book . . . takes us into the universe of an exceptional theory, and offers an irresistible chance to delve into the mind of one of the most brilliant scientists of the twentieth century."--Bulletin critique du livre en franais
Praise for the original, French edition: "Virtually free of mathematical formulas, this book offers accessible reading . . . to all amateur scientists who are by definition curious spirits. . . . A big 'thank you' to Jean Eisenstaedt for this excellent work!"--L'Astronomie
Praise for the original, French edition: "An accessible and precisely written book for all non-mathematicians who wish to comprehend the complexities raised by the theory of relativity."--Aldéran
"A faithful history of Einstein's astonishing theory of gravitation based on curvature of the four-dimensional space-time in which we live, created when no observed datum pointed in that direction. . . . For professionals in other fields, energetic readers, and college-level students."--Choice
"This book gives a lucid account of the struggle to find the right concepts to understand how the speed of light can be independent of the motion of its source."--D. Lynden-Bell, The Observatory Magazine
A new scientific theory does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it. Max Planck
General relativity, that is, Einstein's theory of gravitation, has long been considered incomprehensible. There are many reasons for that opinion, and if they are certainly not all technical, they are not merely ideological either. Rethinking space-time-accepting that geometry is not the one our senses (and our education) have taught us and that the universe is curved-requires a true intellectual effort.
Things had gotten off to a bad start with special relativity, which was not an easy theory either, to say the least. In 1959, four years after Einstein's death, the distinguished theoretical physicist Max von Laue revealed to Margot Löwenthal, Albert's daughter-in-law, his difficulty in understanding Einstein's 1905 article on special relativity and the forty years it had taken him to succeed: "[S]lowly but steadily a new world opened before me. I had to spend a great deal of effort on it.... And epistemologicaldifficulties in particular gave me much trouble. I believe that only since about 1950 have I mastered them."
This admission of Max von Laue, a Nobel physicist familiar with Einstein's work and author of some excellent books on relativity, should help us, as we begin our journey through The Curious History of Relativity, to accept our own difficulty in approaching relativity. We are not alone in this situation. Many before us have faced similar obstacles and have resisted relativity's ideas, logic, and consequences-and made plenty of mistakes which, I hope, will help us to better understand the theory.
The difficulty in understanding "the" theory of relativity (special and general relativity were often confused) was so widespread at the turn of the century that it gave rise to a story, probably apocryphal but soon reaching mythical proportions, in which only three persons could understand Einstein's theory. But it appears that the myth was based on a true story....
On 6 November 1919, at Carlton House in London, the extraordinary meeting of the Royal Society devoted to the results of the English expeditions and chaired by J. J. Thomson has just ended: general relativity has been "verified." Eddington, the hero of the day and the center of attention, chats with his colleagues. Ludwik Silberstein, a small, bearded man, well-known relativist, and author of a decent treatise on special relativity, who also had an inclination for debate and heated discussions and was very sure of himself and his quick mind, joins the group and exchanges a few polite words with an amused Eddington. The atmosphere is light, full of jesting remarks. Silberstein then asks Eddington:
Isn't it true, my dear Eddington, that only three persons in the world understand relativity?" Silberstein confidently expects the obvious, polite reply, "But, apart from Einstein, who, my dear Silberstein, who, if not you ... and I, if you allow me."
Eddington, however, remains aloof, silent, amused. Silberstein insists: "Professor Eddington, you must be one of the three persons in the world who understand general relativity." To which Eddington, unruffled, replies, "On the contrary, I am trying to think who the third person is!"
More than two centuries earlier, a student passed Newton on a Cambridge street and observed in a hushed voice: "There goes the man who has written a book that neither he nor anyone else understands."
Definitely, gravitation does not appear to be an accessible subject. And yet, relativity is not as difficult to understand as public rumor has it, nor is it the only theory to resist comprehension or to make us wonder. By learning about the difficulties experienced by the brightest, we may perhaps more easily accept our own and come to terms with the limits of our understanding. In short, we may progress.
Excerpted from The Curious History of Relativity by Jean Eisenstaedt Copyright © 2006 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted February 10, 2009
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