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.


  1. #1 Matt Leifer
    May 1, 2010

    I read this book a few years ago and really appreciated the detail that Pais goes into on the development of General Relativity. Most GR textbooks give the impression that Einstein came up with special relativity, realized that light should bend around the sun, then went to sleep for several years before finally coming out with GR fully formed. I found the discussion of all the false starts very interesting, not least because it makes Einstein look more human than he does in the textbook story.

    For a better biographical account, that does not gloss over the complications in Einstein’s personal life, I’d recommend the Walter Isaacson biography. However, Pais is still the best account of the science, notwithstanding the dated nature of some sections.

  2. #2 Chad Orzel
    May 1, 2010

    In fact, the Isaacson biography is sitting on the nightstand, waiting to be read. I’m probably going to put it off a little in order to read more on the science side first, but I do plan to read it.

  3. #3 Mantis
    May 1, 2010

    As long as gravity and EM remain not unified it is silly at best to call Einstein later efforts awkward. During the last 50 years no one managed to add anything significant to his contributions – not even you Chad.

    And I actually suspect that once we finally discover the TOE Einstein will be vindicated – I expect it to be be much more similar to what he envisioned then what many of those who like to bash him work on. In particular I agree with his view that quantum effects are not fundamental.

  4. #4 Uncle Al
    May 1, 2010

    If the Equivalence Principle – all bodies vacuum free fall identically – has an exception, then all gravitation theories metric and quantum save one are selectively falsified by a footnote. Teleparallel gravitation embedded in Weitzenböck spacetime ignores the EP. Written by Einstein, Cartan, and Weitzenböck by 1931, it was abandoned because… it ignores the EP.
    Somebody should look.

    The same measurement can be accomplished in 24 hours not 90 days and to sub-10^(-16) relative sensitivity not 5×10^(-14) relative in three different ways – parity calorimetry, parity gyroballs, parity molecular rotors. That last one is insanely good as a seeded pulsed supersonically expanded molecular beam into a vacuum FT microwave spectrometer. Cavity entry is at ~1 kelvin rotational temp SOP. E = mc^2 energy available from inertial vs. gravitational mass divergence slipping under Eotvos experiment sensitivity is 145 kelvins/molecule for the dimer.
    An undergrad could do it. Heck, a computer could do it while the undergrad goes to a kegger. Somebody should look.

    (Deslongchamp’s eight step synthesis: 2,7-dihydroxynaphthalene to twistane in 37% yield; 1,6-dihydroxynaphthalene to twist-2-one in estimated 20% yield, then dimers as random coupling. The meso-dimer is internal irrotational control.)

  5. #5 Doug Natelson
    May 1, 2010

    Great book. I valued very much how it leads you through the thought process behind the development of GR. An even more technical book, but also great in the same way, is QED and the Men Who Made It, by Sylvan Schweber. It’s at the perfect level for someone who has just taken a really good undergrad quantum sequence – you can see how the giants of the field tried to quantize radiation, and why all the things that seem like common sense at first glance don’t work well.

  6. #6 csrster
    May 2, 2010

    The most interesting and counter-intuitive aspect of Pais’ book his argument that Einstein’s work on quantum physics was his most radical and important contribution to physics, and hence that his Nobel Prize was actually, if unintentionally, given for his most important work. According to Pais’ interpretation, Einstein’s opposition to the quantum mechanics arose precisely because he was the first person to fully appreciate just how strange and revolutionary quantum physics actually is.

  7. #7 CCPhysicist
    May 3, 2010

    The comment @6 makes an important point, although I would add that there is no requirement that the person coming up with the idea has to accept all of its implications!

    Special Relativity was as pure a paradigm shift as one can imagine, but not an easy one. He got the same equations with many of the same implications, but from an entirely different point of view. All he did was say that Maxwell’s equations are fundamental and hence must be true in any inertial coordinate system. The problem was that experiments to test the theory were almost impossibly difficult until accelerators were developed in the 1930s.

    Relativity theory today is the same as it was in 1905.

    In contrast, after the developments in 1925, quantum mechanics went way past the idea that light was a photon gas. I think Einstein’s problem with quantum mechanics originated right with that detail. His invention of the photon moved quantization out of the “oscillators” (atoms) and into the electromagnetic field. Heisenberg moved it back into the properties of material particles.

  8. #8 Romil
    May 13, 2012

    Can anyone please mail me the soft copy of this book. I’ll be very thankful. Please do it.