Centennial books illuminate Einstein’s greatest triumph

Scholars mark general relativity anniversary with books on history, biography, science


BRILLIANCE  Four new books put Einstein’s general theory of  relativity in historic and scientific context. 

Ferdinand Schmutzer/Wikimedia Commons

You don’t need an anniversary as an excuse to write a book about Albert Einstein. But the centennial of his general theory of relativity has nonetheless provided an occasion for several new entries in the Einstein library. And even though general relativity — Einstein’s theory of gravity — has been thoroughly explored many times, some 2015 publications do offer new twists and insights.

Thomas Levenson’s The Hunt for Vulcan, for instance, places Einstein’s general relativity in a broader context than usual. Rich in historical detail, if not so much the science, Levenson’s book is a skillful popularization of the backstory to one of Einstein’s key accomplishments — explaining an oddity in the orbit of Mercury. That mystery had been around since the middle of the 19th century, when the French mathematician Urbain Jean Joseph Le Verrier established that Newtonian gravity could not account for the continual shift in Mercury’s closest point to the sun, or perihelion. For decades, astronomers sought a new planet, called Vulcan, that would disturb Mercury’s orbit enough to explain the discrepancy. As Levenson recounts, Vulcan’s “discovery” was in fact reported more than once, but never confirmed. Levenson explores the human motivations and foibles that drove the drama, which was unresolved until Einstein explained that gravity alone accounted for Mercury’s orbit. It’s just that it was Einstein’s gravity, not Newton’s.

While Levenson skims across the surface of general relativity’s complicated science and math, Hanoch Gutfreund and Jürgen Renn immerse themselves and their readers in it, via a guided tour of Einstein’s 50-page hand­written general relativity manuscript. Gutfreund (a physicist) and Renn (a physics historian) dissect every page of the manuscript, explaining the meaning of each passage and describing Einstein’s thought processes leading up to it. If you want more depth than just popularized images of curved space and bending light beams, Gutfreund and Renn’s The Road to Relativity is accessible and engaging. Besides the annotated manuscript, it includes a useful chronology, short biographies (with pictures) of the physicists, mathematicians and philosophers whose work was relevant to the general relativity story, and an English translation of the published version of the manuscript. 

Readers more interested in details about Einstein’s life should try An Einstein Encyclopedia by Alice Calaprice, Daniel Kennefick and Robert Schulmann. It doesn’t ignore the physics — there’s an especially nice section providing readable synopses of the key concepts related to Einstein’s science, from quantum entanglement to gravitational waves. But otherwise, the encyclopedia is a bit like an Einstein museum in print. You can view his birth certificate, death certificate and one of his high school report cards. You can trace the places he lived and his job history, and read brief biographical sketches of his friends, colleagues and collaborators. You can even peruse nine pages outlining his romantic interests. Einstein apparently did not spend all of his time on equations.

But he did spend a fair amount of time writing about his work, and his most famous popularization, Relativity: The Special and General Theory, has been republished for the general relativity centennial. Nobody is better at explaining relativity than Einstein himself; his account provides a combination of depth and clarity that only he could confidently produce. Comprehending it does not require familiarity with advanced mathematics, but the book does, as Einstein states, presume “a fair amount of patience and force of will on the part of the reader.”

This 100th anniversary edition is complemented by commentary from Gutfreund and Renn, who clarify some key points and add historical perspective, making Einstein’s own words even more accessible and meaningful.

No one book could capture all the nuances of general relativity and the complications Einstein faced on his road to developing the theory. But all of these books provide glimpses into Einstein’s mind and his methods. They should not fail to generate a sense of awe and appreciation for one of the greatest intellectual accomplishments in the history of human thought. 

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Tom Siegfried is a contributing correspondent. He was editor in chief of Science News from 2007 to 2012 and managing editor from 2014 to 2017.

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