With an accompanying volume of English translation

Edited by John Stachel et al. Princeton U.P., Princeton, NJ 1989.

A project to bring out the more than 550 books and other works of Leonhard Euler in some 60 volumes was begun in 1911. This involved the international collaboration of a number of scholars who were to contribute introductions and historical analyses of the writings of the prolific mathematician. It continued for more than half a century.

Sixty years later, in 1971, a project to publish Einstein’s Opera Omnia was initiated. When completed, this under-taking would bring in print between the pages of more than 30 tomes some 43000 items (including not only articles and essays and books, but also texts of speeches, personal letters and lecture notes, and more) from Albert Einstein’s mind and pen. This, too will take decades to complete. Because of some inevitable legal and other hurdles in the early stages, it took more than 18 years before the first volume of The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein could see the light of day under the editorial supervision of Professor John Stachel of Boston University and under the sponsorship of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Princeton University Press. A number of eminent scholars in the history of science grace the editorial advisory committee and board. The work under review is the second volume in the series.

One of the major differences between science and literature is that in the former one rarely goes to the originals, especially when studying the classics. Not many who routinely teach or author textbooks on Relativity and Quantum Mechanics read the first papers of Einstein, Bohr, de Broglie, or Schrödinger on the topics. Here is an opportunity to experience what Einstein himself thought and said about relativity and the light quantum, about Brownian motion and specific heats.

The items in the volumes are carefully and systematically numbered (somewhat like the Köchel listing of Mozarts works), each designated as a document bearing a number. Subtitled The Swiss Years: Writings, 1900-1909, the 60 documents in Vol. 2 include abstracts of lectures, Einstein’s doctoral dissertation, more than a score of reviews, and some 25 papers among which are the revolutionary ones of his annus mirabilis (1905).

The early years of our century were a turning point in the history of physics. On the experimental side, there was great excitement about X rays, radioactivity, and the electron: all of which had been discovered in the last decade of the 19th century. Efforts to detect the ether, the substratum through which electromagnetic waves were imagined to propagate, had proved to be fruitless. There was as yet no clear experimental evidence for the existence of atoms. On the theoretical side, problems related to blackbody radiation were still intriguing physicists. Attempts were being made to connect thermodynamics with statistical mechanics. The equipartition theorem was hotly debated. Maxwell’s theory (in its Lorentzian formulation) was generally regarded as a triumph of classical electrodynamics, but there were competing models as to how radiant energy flowed thorough space. This was the context in which Einstein entered the scene.

The contents of Einstein’s technical writings are no doubt the cream of the book. But beyond these, the reader can also gather many interesting facts related to the physics of the period from its pages. For example:

Einstein proposed the light quantum hypothesis in 1905 without recognizing its relationship with Planck’s hypothesis. His application of the idea to (among other things) the photoelectric effect was a masterstroke that won him the Nobel Prize in 1922, but it took a long time before the light quantum idea itself was universally accepted.

It was Bücherer who coined the name Relativitätstheorie. Felix Klein’s suggestion of Invariantentheorie did not catch on. Einstein presented arguments for the mass-energy equivalence in three different papers, and in two others he proposed experimental verifications of the theory. Two major papers on relativistic electrodynamics were written in collaboration with Jakob Laub, who is little known beyond the history of physics community specializing in that period. Nor does one remember Michele Besso, “the only person whose help is acknowledged in Einstein’s first paper on relativity (p. 264).” In recent months some have argued that Einstein’s first wife Mileva Maric should have also been mentioned by the scientific genius. Many of his letters reveal that he did discuss matters of scientific interest with her.

The first experimental evidence for Einstein’s quantum hypothesis came from data on specific heats. In his paper, Planck’s Theory of Radiation and the Theory of Specific Heat (1907), Einstein used the lattice model of a solid to derive his result. It was the experimental work of W. Nernst (1911) that provided what was described as “a brilliant confirmation of the quantum theory of Planck and Einstein…”

Einstein’s celebrated paper on Brownian motion was written before he knew that the matter had been experimentally studied for a long time. Indeed the title of the paper, On the Movement of Small Particles Suspended in Stationary Liquids Required by Molecular-Kinetic Theory of Heat does not mention Brownian motion. His theoretical study of the phenomenon led him to conclude that there must be small voltage fluctuations on condensers: a result that prompted some to construct a device for measuring very small amounts of electric charges.

Einstein’s efforts to obtain a doctoral degree reflect certain aspects of the scientific enterprise that all practicing scientists are aware of, but seldom recognize in their public pronouncements. These relate to personality conflicts, prejudices, political maneuverings, etc. Einstein’s original intention to work with H. F. Weber was foiled because the latter did not have a very high regard for Einstein. This led to conflicts, and Einstein had to seek out another thesis advisor. In 1901 he withdrew his thesis on Molecular Forces, and four years later completed one on A New Determination of Molecular Dimensions. Though initially ignored, partly because his work on Brownian motion drew the attention of many, later on the thesis turned out to be “one of the most frequently cited papers.” Nevertheless, a calculation error was detected in it more than five years after its acceptance. Actually, Einstein had toyed with the idea of presenting his special relativity paper as the thesis for the doctoral degree.

Einstein also reviewed papers and books (primarily on heat and thermodynamics) for the review journal Beiblätter zu den Annalen der Physik. These reveal that, besides German, he had a sound reading knowledge of French, Italian, and English also. Most of his reviews are matter of fact. Sometimes, however, it is difficult to know if he was generous or sarcastic, as in the following statement in his review of Heinrich Birven’s Fundamentals of the Mechanical Theory of Heat: “Even though the book displays some inaccuracy with respect to the fundamental definitions and expositions, it will probably stand in good stead to many engineering students facing an exam with fragmentary college notebooks” (p. 317).

These volumes should be more appropriately entitled, The Annotated Complete Works of Albert Einstein, because they also include valuable introductions and explanatory notes. These editorial comments provide interesting history and contextual framework for the papers. Based on careful study of the original sources, they also draw upon the mass of science historical scholarship on the physics of the period that has been accumulating over the past few decades in journal and books by (and often for the benefit of other) science historians. The informative notes appended to the various papers include conjectures of what Einstein might have had in mind in the use of certain phrases or expressions, elucidation of certain otherwise not so clear arguments, previously known results to which the texts do not make explicit reference, minor corrections, etc.

Though the volumes are not intended to be biographical, one can gather many insights into the life and character of Einstein from the editorial comments. For example, we learn about his misunderstandings with J. Stark on the attribution of credit to his work (pp. 269-70); we discover that there were only five or six weeks “between the conception of the idea for the special theory of relativity and the completion of the relevant publication…” (p. 264); that he was not even sure if the Annalen der Physik would accept the paper (p. 266). Already in his 1908 paper on the conclusions to be drawn from Relativity, Einstein suspected that radioactivity would result in some loss of mass in the daughter nucleus (p. 464). In one of his papers (On a Method for the Determination of the Ratio of Transverse and the Longitudinal Mass of the Electron) Einstein invites experimentalists to verify his theory (p. 371)

Practically all the writings in this volume are in German. [Einstein rarely wrote in any other language.] But a companion volume provides English translations of all the documents. It is sometimes thought that translations of technical writings are easier that those of literary works. That this is not necessarily so is reflected in the companion volume to this work. It contains faithful rather than satisfactory English versions of the original. Whether it is due to reverence for the original or to the translator’s unfamiliarity with the physics in question, there are many instances where one could have expected a better rendering. Thus, Schmelztemparatur (p. 238) is translated as melting temperature (p. 135) instead of melting point; die elektrische und magnetische Kraft des Lichtes, welches durch einen bewegten Körper beeinflusst wird (p.300) is faithfully translated as the electric and magnetic force of light which is influenced by a body… (p. 165), instead of electric and magnetic forces which are…; Roskoe (p. 222) should be Roscoe; zufälligen Fehler (p. 395) is made into chance errors (p. 227); instead of random errors; deren Quadrat (p. 458) should have been deren Quadraten, and the translation also says whose square (p. 280) instead of whose squares; cylindric (p. 335) should be cylindrical; the case that no magnetic field… (p. 336) though literally correct, should read the case in which no magnetic field…; (2) und (3) in Gliedern erster Ordnung unterscheiden (p. 517) is translated as (2) and (3) differ in terms of first order (p. 337), instead of (2) and (3) differ in their first-order terms. There is also a serious typo on p. 151 of the translation where the reciprocal of beta is give as beta.

It was certainly a good idea to bring out simultaneously English versions of Einstein’s writings. For even with the minor gaucheries referred to above, these translations will surely be very useful to innumerable readers. However, for future volumes, perhaps the translators would do well to consult someone more at ease with the English idiom and with greater familiarity with the physics in question before sending their final drafts to the printer.

There is little doubt that students and teachers of physics as well as textbook authors who may not be very aware of the historical dimensions of what they learn or teach will discover in these pages a good deal that is interesting, informative, and insightful, aside from the excitement to be derived from reading the works of the Master.

This undertaking, by putting the totality of Einstein’s intellectual output within the scope of a well-defined bounded space, will become an invaluable monument for one who became an extraordinary symbol of scientific genius in our century. Like all memorials, they will be explored and enjoyed by generations yet unborn. But Collected Papers also have qualities that other memorials do not possess. Unlike a building or a statue, they can be reproduced in countless numbers and distributed all over the world. They will serve as the most authentic source for all future discussions and debates on the contents and relevance of the author's works. When enriched with footnotes and editorial comments, they provide insights into the life and context of the scientist in question. By revealing the great and the ordinary outputs, the triumphs as well as the slips in the writings, Collected Papers reveal that even the greatest scientists are still only human. So it will be with this book.