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Part of the cover of the textbook Gravitation.

Gravitation’s attraction, 50 years later

10 March 2023

How has a massive textbook that has not been updated remained so relevant?

Gravitation textbook on a scale.
Measured on the author’s kitchen scale, a softcover copy of Gravitation registered at more than 2.5 kilograms. Credit: Ryan Dahn

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of the esteemed general-relativity textbook Gravitation. Authored by Charles Misner and Kip Thorne and their former adviser at Princeton, John Wheeler, Gravitation has proved so influential that it is known in the academic community by the acronym MTW. Despite being somewhat outdated, MTW is still in print today in essentially its original form. It was most recently reprinted in 2017 with a new preface from David Kaiser, a physicist and historian of science. (Kaiser’s 2012 article in Isis provides a detailed history of the textbook.)

Gravitation was published in September 1973, near the end of a two-decade period that is now considered the renaissance or golden age of general relativity. After a long period of widespread apathy toward Albert Einstein’s famous theory, the 1950s and 1960s saw a resurgence of interest in the field: Theorists began investigating relativistic topics like gravitational waves, and observational astronomers started detecting relativistic phenomena such as quasars, pulsars, and the cosmic microwave background radiation.

Those advances had dated older textbooks. MTW was intended to fill the gap and prepare graduate students to enter the burgeoning field. It certainly helps fill a bookshelf: Clocking in at 1279 pages—which are divided into 44 chapters that themselves are grouped into 10 parts—Gravitation covers special relativity, differential geometry, spacetime curvature, relativistic stars, black holes, cosmology, gravitational waves, experimental tests of relativity, and more.

As befits a classic, the Niels Bohr Library & Archives in College Park, Maryland, holds three copies of MTW, two of which are of particular interest. (The library is part of the American Institute of Physics, which publishes Physics Today.) The first is a softcover copy autographed by Misner and Thorne along with Rainer Weiss and Barry Barish, the two relativists who shared the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics with Thorne for the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory’s direct detection of gravitational waves.

The other copy of note is perhaps an even rarer treasure: It’s the first of two volumes of a preliminary version that was printed by the authors in the fall of 1970 and distributed for $10 (about $75 today) to colleagues for feedback. The preliminary edition is divided into nine parts, each of which ends with a comment form that readers were requested to fill out and mail back to Thorne. The former owner of the library’s copy, the late gravitational-wave specialist Joseph Weber, apparently didn’t take Thorne up on his offer, as all the comment forms are intact.

The preliminary edition is a testament to how the textbook evolved during the writing process. It had only 33 chapters, 11 fewer than the published edition. Many jokes have been made over the years at the expense of MTW’s bulkiness—even in softcover, it weighs in at almost six pounds—but perhaps some of that heft was due to the comments the authors received. The 1970 version is also illustrative of a long-gone analog era: The manuscript was typewritten, with the authors subsequently adding in all the equations and figures by hand.

Comparison of a preliminary and published diagram in Gravitation.
Figure 1.6 of Gravitation is shown in the original hand-drawn form found in the preliminary edition (left) and as engraved in the printed book (right). The figure depicts a version of the Eötvös experiment, which demonstrates that all objects fall with the same acceleration in a vacuum. Credit: (left) C. W. Misner, K. S. Thorne, J. A. Wheeler, Gravitation, 1970 preliminary edition; (right) C. W. Misner, K. S. Thorne, J. A. Wheeler, Gravitation, Princeton University Press (2017)

In some ways MTW very much shows its age. As was common in that era, the preface refers to graduate students with the generic pronoun “he.” And apropos of a time when doctoral programs in physics still required foreign-language competency, MTW’s extensive 33-page bibliography—still useful today for physicists and historians—cites dozens of works in French, German, and Russian. Some of the entries are accompanied by pithy comments. For instance, the authors noted that a 1966 Russian-language article on stellar accretion by Andrei Doroshkevich had a “terrible” English translation.

In other ways, MTW still feels fresh. Among the pedagogical innovations was the decision to assign chapters and sections to “tracks.” The first track provides readers with the “indispensable core of gravitation theory,” which can be taught in one semester. Instructors of year-long gravitation courses (or students with a desire to dig deeper) can then pick and choose from the collection of advanced topics included in the second track. Another innovation was the inclusion of descriptive text in the margins, which provides a detailed schematic outline of the massive tome and helps readers locate key passages quickly when flipping through the book.

Despite the weightiness of its subject, MTW is tonally distinct, infused with a sense of whimsy that remains captivating. Section 11.1, for example, is titled “Curvature, at last!” Each of the 10 parts begins with an epigraph reminiscent of chapter titles in a picaresque novel: “Wherein the reader, armed / with the magic potions and powers / of Geometrodynamics, conquers the stars,” reads the delightful epigraph to part 5, “Relativistic Stars.”

Spread at the end of the textbook.
Gravitation’s 44 chapters conclude with this two-page spread. Credit: C. W. Misner, K. S. Thorne, J. A. Wheeler, Gravitation, Princeton University Press (2017)

For a physics textbook, it contains a sizable amount of history. Boxes are dedicated to not only famous figures but also lesser-known gravitational pioneers such as Loránd Eötvös and Robert Dicke, the latter of whom was still alive when the book was published. One epigraph quotation comes from the 12th-century Iranian astronomer Al-Khāzini, who is known for compiling astronomical tables and for work on mechanics. And how many physics textbooks end with a groovy two-page spread featuring poems and quotations in three languages—along with a phrenological-style diagram that jokingly maps relativistic topics onto different sections of the brain? Curious about the spread, I asked Thorne about the story behind it. His reply was short and sweet: “That is quintessential Wheeler.”

Those quirkier aspects of the book were controversial when it was released. In his August 1974 review for Physics Today, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar noted that “the large amount of rhetorical prose … invades whole sections.” Yet I suspect that they are a big part of the reason why the book remains so relevant 50 years after its debut. Leafing through Gravitation, you get the sense that Misner, Thorne, and Wheeler are sitting beside you and helping you grasp the mysteries of spacetime. Who wouldn’t want to probe the depths of the universe with such company?

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