The Curious History of Relativity: How Einstein's Theory of Gravity Was Lost and Found Again

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Overview

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.

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Editorial Reviews

Bulletin critique du livre en français
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.
Aldéran

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.
Aldaran
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.
Times Higher Education Supplement - Simon Mitton
This book is a treasure from a world expert. It offers a deeper understanding of Einstein's theory and, above all, it is an inspiring account of his unique scientific style.
The Observatory Magazine - D. Lynden-Bell
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.
From the Publisher

"This book is a treasure from a world expert. It offers a deeper understanding of Einstein's theory and, above all, it is an inspiring account of his unique scientific style."--Simon Mitton, Times Higher Education Supplement

"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

Times Higher Education Supplement
This book is a treasure from a world expert. It offers a deeper understanding of Einstein's theory and, above all, it is an inspiring account of his unique scientific style.
— Simon Mitton
Science News
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.
Ciel & Espace
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.
Bulletin critique du livre en francais
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.
L'Astronomie
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!
Alderan
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.
Choice
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.
The Observatory Magazine
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
Library Journal
Director of research at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in France, Eisenstaedt is also the author of Avant Einstein: Relativite, Lumiere, Gravitation (Before Einstein: Relativity, Light, Gravitation) and has written many articles on the history of physics, relativity, and astronomy. 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. He begins more than 200 years before Einstein was born, because relativity could not have "happened" without the imagination, theorizing, experimenting, intellectual discussion, testing, and retesting of scores of scientists before that famous 1905 paper. He then follows Einstein's theory as it languished in obscurity for decades until the discovery of black holes in the 1960s revived interest. Eisenstaedt doesn't overburden the reader with technical jargon or an abundance of equations (yet there are some). Although a physics degree is not necessary to comprehend the science, some exposure to the scientific method would be useful in following the progression of the scientific thinking. This book is most appropriate for academic libraries but would enhance the science collection of public libraries as well.-Margaret F. Dominy, Drexel Univ. Lib., Philadelphia Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691118659
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 9/18/2006
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 976,366
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Jean Eisenstaedt is Senior Researcher at France's National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) attached to the Paris Observatory. The widely praised French edition of "The Curious History of Relativity" was published as "Einstein et la relativite generale". Eisenstaedt's most recent book is "Avant Einstein. Relativite, lumiere, gravitation" (Before Einstein: Relativity, Light, Gravitation).

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Read an Excerpt

The Curious History of Relativity

How Einstein's Theory of Gravity Was Lost and Found Again
By Jean Eisenstaedt

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2006 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-11865-9


Introduction

A DIFFICULT THEORY

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.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from The Curious History of Relativity by Jean Eisenstaedt Copyright © 2006 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Foreword vii
INTRODUCTION: A Difficult Theory 1
CHAPTER ONE: The Speed of Light and Classical Physics 4
CHAPTER TWO: Light and the Structure of Space-Time 24
CHAPTER THREE: Toward a New Theory of Gravitation 58
CHAPTER FOUR: Einstein's Principles 76
CHAPTER FIVE: The Birth of General Relativity 103
CHAPTER SIX: General Relativity: A Physical Geometry 138
CHAPTER SEVEN: Relativity Verified: Mercury's Anomaly 149
CHAPTER EIGHT: Relativity Verified: The Deflection of Light Rays 167
CHAPTER NINE: Relativity Verified: The Line Shift 196
CHAPTER TEN: The Crossing of the Desert 213
CHAPTER ELEVEN: An Unpopular Theory 244
CHAPTER TWELVE: The Rejection of Black Holes 255
CHAPTER THIRTEEN: Paths in Schwarzschild's Space-Time 284
CHAPTER FOURTEEN: No Ordinary Stars 310
CHAPTER FIFTEEN: Gravitation, Astrophysics, and Cosmology 325
AFTERWORD: The Paths of General Relativity 346
Bibliography 349
Name Index 361
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