The APS now gives out an Abraham Pais Prize for History of Physics, which gives you some idea of how influential his work was, in particular “Subtle Is the Lord…” The Science and Life of Albert Einstein, which won prizes and sits in a prominent position on the bookshelves of many physicists. Like a lot of influential works, though, it’s kind of odd to read it much later than some of the works it has influenced.
The ordering of the subtitle is very deliberate, and accurate. This is first and foremost a book about Einstein’s science, with a biographical structure and occasional biographical elements stuck on. At the same time, though, it’s not a textbook, but a survey of Einstein’s many accomplishments and a guide to how he developed his ideas.
This attempt to be a little bit of two different things at the same time makes for an odd reading experience. The major ideas of Einstein’s scientific papers are laid out, equations and all, but not in enough detail to be able to follow them through unless you already know something about the physics. I could more or less follow the sections on statistical physics and special relativity, but the chapters on general relativity were a hard slog– my only exposure to the math of the theory being a long-ago undergrad course on cosmology, the equations didn’t really mean much, and I could only just follow the thread of their development.
At the same time, the biographical elements are a little thin. There are some good anecdotes, but it seems a little like the author’s personal affection for Einstein keeps him from wanting to talk about anything unflattering. And yet, there are difficult facts like the last twenty-ish scientifically unproductive years of Einstein’s life to deal with. Pais casts the futile attempt to find a unified field theory that doesn’t involve any quantum field theory in about the best light possible, but it ends up feeling really awkward.
There’s also some weirdness about the formatting. The chapters are exhaustively references, but Pais mostly uses a slightly unusual citation format to refer to references for each individual chapter, except for a few chapter where he uses a different system. Equations are sometimes presented in the form that Einstein initially used, and other times in more modern notation, and sometimes the variable names will change from one section to the next. It almost feels like a fix-up biography created by pasting together a bunch of pre-existing articles, with only token efforts to provide consistency between sections, but nothing in the front matter suggests this is the case, so I remain somewhat puzzled.
A final strangeness comes from the fact that this is an old book (published in 1982), and thus its take on the status of various physical ideas is kind of dated. There are a few references to then-modern particle physics that suggest that things will all be wrapped up in a few years, which has a sort of “In the year 2000, we’ll live in cities on the Moon….” feel to it now, nearly thirty years on. And its assessment of some of the science doesn’t quite fit with the modern view. In particular, the Einstein, Podolsky, and Rosen paper gets barely more than one page, and is treated as sort of an embarrassing post-script to Einstein’s earlier groundbreaking work, while I think many physicists these days would regard it as flawed but extremely important– it really sets up a lot of the issues that are central to quantum information, a field that was just getting started when Pais was writing.
I read this as research of a sort, considering a possible How to Teach Physics to Your Dog 2 on relativity, and I’m not sure how useful it will ultimately prove to be in that context. It’s an interesting read, though, as much for what it says indirectly about the history of writing about science as for what it says about Einstein’s scientific career.