The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein by Pais
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The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein by Pais

Subtle is the Lord The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein by Abraham Pais | PDF Free Download.

The Science and the Life Contents


Foreword to The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein

The world of science is greatly fortunate that a theoretical physicist of the distinction of Abraham Pais should have discovered within himself not only a particular talent for scientific biography but also a passionate desire to convey to us his unique perspective on the momentous developments in 20th-century physics that he had witnessed.

Himself a very significant later contributor, Pais had been well acquainted with most of the key figures in this highly remarkable period of scientific development, and he was able to combine his own deep understanding of the central physical ideas with personal knowledge of these individuals.

Pais had worked with Niels Bohr in 1946 and later wrote a comprehensive biography of Bohr's life and work.

Subsequently, he provided short biographies of many other outstanding figures of the time, with whom he had been personally acquainted, such as Paul Dirac, Wolfgang Pauli, John Von Neumann, and Eugene Wigner.

But the book that launched Pais's biographical career was his landmark biography of Einstein, entitled "Subtle is the Lord", the title being an English translation of part of a quotation from Einstein (inscribed, in 1930, in marble above the fireplace in the faculty lounge of the mathematics building in Princeton) which in the original German reads "Raffiniert ist der Herrgott aber boshaft ist er nicht." Pais translates this as "Subtle is the Lord, but malicious He is not".

There have been numerous biographies of Einstein, both before and after this one, but what distinguishes Pais's book is the detail and insight into Einstein's scientfic contributions, with not so much emphasis on issues of a personal nature that have little bearing on his role as a scientist.

This book was surely the biography that Einstein himself would have most valued. For whereas Pais does not at all *Niels Bohr's Times: In Physics, Philosophy, and Polity (Oxford University Press, 1991).

The Genius of Science: A Portrait Gallery of Twentieth-Century Physicists (Oxford University Press, 2000). In his technical/historical book Inward Bound: Of Matter and Forces in the Physical World (Oxford University Press, 1986), he addressed the important aspects of 20th-century physics not covered in the current volume.

neglect Einstein's personal side—and an interesting picture of Einstein the man indeed comes through—the real strength of this work lies in its handling of the physical ideas.

As Einstein had earlier commented: "The essence of the being of a man of my type lies precisely in what he thinks and how he thinks, not what he does or suffers".

On the scientific side, there is, indeed, much to be said. Einstein contributed far more to the physics of the early 20th century than just relativity.

Apart from Max Planck, with his ground-breaking work of 1900 (on the spectrum of blackbody radiation), Einstein was the first to break away from the classical physics of the time and to introduce the crucial quantum "wave/particle" idea—the idea that despite light is an electromagnetic wave, it sometimes had to be treated as a collection of particles (now called "photons").

Through this work Einstein discovered the explanation of the photoelectric effect, this eventually winning him a Nobel Prize. He provided (in his doctorate thesis) a novel method of determining the sizes of molecules, at a time when their very existence was still controversial.

He was one of the first to understand the detailed nature of the tiny wiggling "Brownian" motion of small particles in suspension and to provide a beginning to the new statistical physics. He contributed key ideas that led to the development of lasers.

And all this is not to mention his revolutionary theories of special and general relativity! In describing each of these contributions, Pais first sets the stage, lucidly describing the state of the relevant parts of physics at the time Einstein entered the scene, often explaining in significant detail the work of Einstein's precursors.

Then we find Einstein's own fundamental contributions, introduced and discussed in-depth, the essential novelty of Einstein's viewpoint being all very clearly set out, as is the profound influence that it had on subsequent work.

This account indeed provides a wonderful overview of the developments in physics of the early 20th century, as there seems to be no major area of theoretical physics on which Einstein did not have some impact.

This book is not a "popular" work, in the sense of the term that so often seems to involve distortions and oversimplifications in attempts to explain technical concepts to the lay reader.

Instead, it comes seriously to grips with the physics involved in each major area that is treated and, where appropriate, mathematical equations are presented without apology. Yet this is by no means simply a cold scientific account in which personal influences are deemed irrelevant.

Pais illuminates many facets of Einstein's life, some of which may at first seem almost paradoxical. Pais may not always provide answers, but he expounds on these issues in insightful ways.

The common picture of Einstein is an unworldly almost saintly old man, with twinkling eyes, mustache, wild white hair, and attired in a floppy sweater.

But this was the Einstein who spent the last twenty years of his life in Princeton on a certain approach to a unified field theory that the majority of physicists would now judge to be basically misconceived.

How does this picture relate to that of the Einstein of the "miraculous" the year 1905, with an apparently dapper appearance, working at the Patent Office in Bern, and producing several epoch-making papers?

What about Einstein's relation to quantum mechanics? Can we understand why he had set off on his lonely route, at first so much ahead of his contemporaries and then very much to one side of them, so that eventually they seemed convincing to have passed him by?

Do we find clues to his science in his early years, such as when as a child of about five he was enchanted by the seemingly miraculous behavior of a pocket compass, or when at twelve he was enthralled by Euclid?

Or may we learn as much from a remark from his teacher in the Munich Gymnasium asserting that he would have been much happier if young Albert had not been in his class: "you sit there in the back row and smile, and that violates the feeling of respect which a teacher needs from his class"?

Einstein's early ability to find authority funny was a trait that stayed with him until the end. And we find that Einstein was certainly no saint, though he was an admirable man in many ways.

It is perhaps not surprising that he had a remarkable faculty for detaching himself from his surroundings, no doubt both a necessary factor for him and a cause of strain in his two marriages.

But he certainly did not lack personal feelings, as is made particularly clear in his highly sensitive obituary notices and appreciations of fellow scientists and friends. And he clearly had a sense of humor.

He was a humanitarian, a pacifist, and an internationalist. His feelings would, perhaps as often as not, be more directed at humanity as a whole than at particular individuals.

He could sometimes be petulant, however, such as after learning that a paper that he submitted to Physical Review had actually been sent to a referee(!), whose lengthy report requested clarifications. Einstein angrily withdrew his paper and never submitted another to that journal. And he could feel an understandable human annoyance in matters of priority concerning his own scientific work.

Usually, he would later check his over-reaction, and in these cases, we might have on record only the very gracious subsequent letters of reconciliation to suggest any earlier friction.

His correspondence with the renowned mathematician David Hilbert was a case in point, concerning the issue of who had first correctly formulated the full field equations of general relativity.

But in the case of another great mathematician, Henri Poincare, in relation to the origins of special relativity, it took until towards the end of Einstein's life for him even to acknowledge the existence of Poincare's contributions.

There is little doubt that Einstein had been influenced by Poincare, perhaps indirectly through Lorentz, or through Poincare's popular writings.

Poincare himself seems to have been less generous, as he never even mentioned Einstein's contributions at all in his own later papers on the subject! It is interesting also to follow the developments in Einstein's approach to physics as he grew older.

It is a common view that Einstein slowed down dramatically as he reached his 40s, or that he perhaps lost his earlier extraordinary instincts for divining physical truth.

What Pais's account makes clear, however, is that he found himself driven more and more into areas where his own technical judgments were not so reliable.

One must bear in mind that although Einstein was an able mathematician, his profound natural gifts lay in physics, not mathematics.

This comes through particularly in the section of the book on general relativity, where Einstein's struggles are described, starting with his appreciation in 1907 of the fundamental role of the equivalence principle and ending with his final field equations in 1915.

In place of the sureness that Einstein exhibited in his earlier work, now there is vacillation: he is continually saying that he believes that he has found the final form of the theory, only to retract in a few months' time and to present a quite different scheme with equal confidence.

This is not to belittle Einstein's supreme achievement, however. On the contrary, the discovery of general relativity shines out as all the more remarkable, and it speaks even more strongly of the sureness of Einstein's physical instincts when one realizes how uncomfortable Einstein actually was with the mathematics.

In his work on unified field theories, which occupied him throughout the final twenty years of his life, Einstein's vacillation is apparent to an even greater degree.

He was now in an area where guidance needed to come through mathematics rather than through physics, so the sureness of Einstein's touch was no longer to be found. Finally, there is the issue of Einstein's refusal to accept, fully, the quantum theory, as that subject had been gradually developed by others during the course of Einstein's life.

Is this also an indication of a failing of Einstein's judgment, as his years advanced, or of a lack of appreciation of the elegance of its mathematical structure? I do not think so.

It must be said that some of Einstein's objections to quantum theory have not really stood the test of time—most notably that it was "unreasonable" that the theory should possess strange non-local aspects (puzzling features that Einstein correctly pointed out).

Yet, his most fundamental criticism does, I believe, remain valid.

This objection is that the theory seems not to present us with any fully objective picture of physical reality. Here, I would certainly side with Einstein (and with certain other key figures in the development of the theory, notably Schrodinger and Dirac) in the belief that quantum theory is not yet complete.

But why should we still trust the views of a man whose instincts were fashioned by the physics of over one hundred years ago? Surely Einstein's initial insights into the quantum structure of things were simply overtaken by the impressively successful theories of younger men.

Why should we go along with Einstein's "nineteenth-century" view of objective physical reality when modern quantum theory seems to be presenting us with a more subjective picture? Whatever one's beliefs may be on this matter, Einstein's extraordinary record tells us that his views are always worthy of the greatest respect.

To understand what his views actually were, you cannot do better than to read on.

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