NB. I was sent this book as a review copy.
In 1917, two years after publishing his work on The General Theory of Relativity, Einstein published a popular science account of both The Special, and General Theories of relativity. It is with some embarrassment that I have to admit that I’d never read this before, despite taking a number of undergraduate and postgraduate courses in relativity. Einstein understood the importance that his results had on our understanding of the universe, but also that the profundity of them could not truly be grasped by the general public, despite the headlines which covered many newspapers around the world on his results, without a popular exposition. 1917 was the publication of the first edition of this explication, but he continued to update them up until 1954. This allowed him to extend the theoretical discussion with the experimental verifications and discoveries which occurred over the next decades, including that of the expanding cosmology, spearheaded by Hubble’s observations.
The book is written in an incredibly clear way, which takes the reader not just through the concepts themselves, but through the thought process that Einstein had in seeing the necessity for such groundbreaking steps. I have read many popular and detailed accounts of this subject, and I believe that at the conceptual level, this is really the clearest I’ve ever come across. While there is some mathematics in the book, it is kept to the minimum necessary. I have to say that I wish I had known how good this was when I was first learning about the subject for the first time, as I think that it’s an ideal introduction before one dives into the mathematics fully. It’s not a long exposition, but it would be a great foundation for the details in a full undergraduate course.
The book deals with both the special and general theories, and it is very clear how the experimental results drive the theoretical underpinnings. There are also discussions about the results that came out soon after the general theory was published which matched so perfectly with the theoretical expectations.
In summary on the part of the book written by Einstein, it is exceptional, and should be read by anybody who wants to know about these fundamental ideas or indeed who already knows about them but wants to discover Einstein’s own perspective. It’s beautiful, and clear and insightful.
This edition of the book contains, at the back, 13 commentaries on various parts of the text, written by Gutfreund and Renn. I have to admit that I found these parts very frustrating. Much of it is putting into other words what Einstein said succinctly and clearly in the book, and these ‘summaries’ of what he already said rather lessen any extra information which they are adding to his discussion. Although there are extra interesting points, both about the physics, and the history, I found myself just getting annoyed with the repetition of what had come before, for seemingly no reason. It felt like footnotes added to the text would have been more valuable, discussing any of these history, or physical developments, or clarifying any points which may have been explained in a clearer way. The fact that the commentaries come after the text feel like they are simply a detailed book review, which may have been what the authors were going for, but for me felt unnecessarily long and detailed.
After the 13 commentaries comes a history and survey of some of the foreign language editions of the book discussing the translations and the process by which these editions came about. This is indeed an interesting section which includes some fascinating historical notes about the physicists involved in these editions, from Levi-Civita for the Italian edition (who suggested that such a translation was made) to Xia Yuanli for the Chinese edition.
Overall the book is well worth getting hold of, and despite my frustrations, there are some interesting thoughts within the commentaries and so they are also worth going through. I would recommend this book for anyone teaching an introductory course on the subject, or for anyone who has a good high school mathematics background and would like to read about the subject in the words of its creator.