By MARTIN ZEILIG
“Beyond the self there was this huge world which exists independently of us human beings and which stands before us like a great, eternal riddle, at least partially accessible to our introspection and thinking.” – Albert Einstein in Autobiographical Notes
In the preface of his new hardcover book, How Einstein Created Relativity out of Physics and Astronomy (Springer 254 pg.), science historian Dr. David Topper asks, and then answers, a very basic question about Einstein.
It is, coincidentally, the first query that a journalist from The Jewish Post & News is about to pose during an interview session in his well-organized, book-lined office at Topper’s home in River Heights.
“There are already a zillion books on Einstein and/or relativity,” writes Topper, who retired from the Department of History, University of Winnipeg, on July 1, 2012 after 42 years of teaching.
“So why did I write this one? There are several reasons. Many good books that explain relativity are out of print. Those still in print often lack a biographical component. There are many very good biographies of Einstein, but the discussions of science are erratic – from poor to adequate, with only a few being quite good. Nonetheless, even the good ones mainly focus only on Einstein’s physics, with minimal information on the larger historical context of his science. Mostly, they contain only brief discussions, a few sentences or a short paragraph, on say Galileo’s or Faraday’s or Newton’s work that influenced him. There is a critical and vital difference between some physics in the context of Einstein’s life and the fuller and deeper milieu within the history of physics – the latter framework being implied in the title to this book. This leads me to a further rationale.”
Treading a fine line between the technical and popular (but not shying away from the sporadic equation), this book explains the entire range of relativity and weaves an up-to-date biography of Einstein throughout.
The result is an explanation of the world of relativity, “based on an extensive journey into earlier physics and a simultaneous voyage into the mind of Einstein,” written for the curious and intelligent reader, according to Topper.
“Indeed, this book tracks the history of the theory of relativity through Einstein’s life, with in-depth studies of its background as built upon by ideas from earlier scientists. The focus points of Einstein’s theory of relativity include its development throughout his life; the origins of his ideas and his indebtedness to the earlier works of Galileo, Newton, Faraday, Mach and others; the application of the theory to the birth of modern cosmology; and his quest for a unified field theory,” he writes early on in the book.
Topper, a native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has a Master of Science degree in Physics from Case Institute (1966) and both an M.A. (1968) and a Ph.D. in History of Science from Case Western Reserve University (1970).
He was first exposed to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity from popular books that explained the theory in simple terms.
“Later, the theory was taught in my university courses, from which I learnt more through lectures and especially by problem solving,” observes Topper, who along with his wife, Sylvia, a practising psychotherapist, has two adult children.
“But I only fully understood the theory when I studied it historically as a graduate student. The goal of this book is to track the history of the Theory of Relativity through Einstein’s life, with in-depth studies of the background, tracing ideas through earlier scientists.”
The well-footnoted book also deals with the non-science side of Einstein’s life.
“He had his foibles and was not the saint he was later made out to be,” explains Topper, a winner of the Clifford J. Robson Memorial Award for Excellence in Teaching (U of W: May, 1981) and a 3M Teaching Fellowship (1987), who wrote an earlier book entitled, Quirky Sides of Scientists: True Tales of Ingenuity and Error from Physics and Astronomy (Springer 2007).
He also points out that Einstein was “very much a Jew,” but in a secular sense.
“Spinoza (the 17th century Jewish-Dutch philosopher) was his hero and Einstein too didn’t believe in a transcendent God, but in a pantheistic view of life,” Topper says.
“He certainly didn’t believe in life after death.”
Some other essential facts about Albert Einstein:
He was born in Ulm, in Württemberg, Germany, on March 14, 1879. Six weeks later the family moved to Munich, where he later on began his schooling at the Luitpold Gymnasium. Later, they moved to Italy and Albert continued his education at Aarau, Switzerland. In 1896 he entered the Swiss Federal Polytechnic School in Zurich to be trained as a teacher in physics and mathematics. In 1900 he gained his diploma, in 1901 he acquired Swiss citizenship and, as he was unable to find a teaching post, he accepted a position as technical assistant in the Swiss Patent Office. In 1905 he obtained his doctor’s degree.
During his stay at the Patent Office, and in his spare time, he produced much of his early remarkable work and, in 1908, he was appointed Privatdozent in Berne. In 1909 he became Professor Extraordinary at Zurich, in 1911 Professor of Theoretical Physics at Prague, returning to Zurich in the following year to fill a similar post at the Polytechnic School. In 1914 he was appointed Director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Physical Institute and Professor in the University of Berlin. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics 1921, but it was not announced until November of 1922 because the committee deferred bestowing the prize that year. Although Einstein was told that he was granted the prize before leaving on a trip to Japan, he did not postpone the trip. So the prize was announced during Einstein’s voyage, and he had to claim it later, in 1923.
He remained in Berlin until 1933 when emigrated to America to take the position of Professor of Theoretical Physics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. He became a United States citizen in 1940.