Einstein 1905: The Standard of Greatness ,

John S.
Harvard U. Press
Cambridge, MA
, 2005. $21.95 (173 pp.). ISBN 0-674-01544-4

Finally, 2005 ended and we survived the 1905 centennial festivities. We’re left with various tributes to Albert Einstein’s legacy, including John S. Rigden’s Einstein 1905: The Standard of Greatness. The author aptly describes his book as a celebration of Einstein’s achievements. In it, he introduces Einstein’s famous works of 1905, seminal contributions that include the notion that light is absorbed and emitted as particles, a derivation of the size of sugar molecules in a liquid, the causes behind the erratic motions of pollen grains suspended in water, and an understanding of the effects of relative motion on our determinations of time and energy. I characterize Einstein’s accomplishments that way because Rigden writes in very palpable terms. He sensibly illustrates Einstein’s concepts with analogies to molasses, sand, bagged sugar, cars, fence posts, and airplanes.

The book is comparable to John Stachel’s classic Einstein’s Miraculous Year: Five Papers That Changed the Face of Physics (Princeton U. Press, 2005 [1998]), which includes translations of Einstein’s 1905 papers. Yet Rigden’s is much more accessible to readers who lack the knowledge or patience to understand those papers. Rigden was editor of the American Journal of Physics from 1978 to 1988. He is now an honorary professor of physics at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, and coeditor of the outstanding history journal Physics in Perspective.

Rigden shares insights about Einstein’s ensemble of papers. For instance, it’s common to hear that physicists cite Einstein’s dissertation on molecular dimensions far more frequently than his papers on the light quantum and on relativity. Rigden explains that the hierarchy of citations is misleading because some papers are so fundamental that they become taken for granted.

He also argues that Einstein’s great success stemmed from his approach of trying to understand God. Statements such as “In 1905, Einstein had a direct line to God’s thoughts” stem partly from Einstein’s occasional remarks; but it would be fair to at least mention that Einstein did not mean those remarks literally. Einstein was an agnostic who rejected the notion of a personal god; he argued that “no idea is divinely inspired,” and that no superhuman authority rules ethics. So, to better answer the question “How did Einstein do it?” we might turn to recent works by historians Robert Rynasiewicz and Jürgen Renn.

Portions of the book resemble what Friedrich Nietzsche called monumental history: Elevated stories canonize the departed hero’s feats. Rigden contends that in 1905 Einstein set “the standard of greatness” and distinguishes Einstein from other physicists. For example, Einstein “recognized truths about the world by pure acts of mind.” But what about Einstein’s explanation that intuition stems from reflection on accumulated empirical knowledge? We also read that “He saw Nature as it is.”

In my opinion, the celebratory thread is too uncritical. Einstein himself repeatedly complained that the popular overestimation of his achievements was “simply grotesque.” He rejected such admiration as having arisen through “no merit of my own.” Most retort that Einstein was being humble. Some of us believe he was just being honest.

Minor mistakes on names and dates, and passing slips like the statement that at superluminal speeds, lengths “become negative” could have been caught by better editing. More important are the oversights. Consider Rigden’s take on special relativity, which he calls a “super theory.” He argues that Einstein’s 1905 relativity paper “radiates perfection,” that it “exudes simplicity.” Yet for many physicists, the paper was remarkably difficult to appreciate. Einstein himself acknowledged that he had written it in a needlessly complicated way. It even includes the erroneous claim that a clock on Earth’s equator runs slower than an identical polar clock (see the article by Alex Harvey and Engelbert Schucking, Physics Today, March 2005, page 34, and Letters, September 2005, page 12).

Also, as in many other books, some factors that had the most influence on Einstein, such as Hippolyte Fizeau’s experiment on the convection of light by moving water, and David Hume’s philosophy, are not mentioned at all. Moreover, readers should be told that prior to 1905 influential theorists such as Ernst Mach, Karl Pearson, and Henri Poincaré had already argued cogently that time is not absolute. Einstein had read their works. Mach, for one, is mentioned in the book only as having disbelieved in atoms; thus he appears merely as someone Einstein proved wrong. Likewise, there is scarce mention of the findings prior to 1905 that had already convinced most chemists and physicists to accept the existence of atoms.

Einstein 1905 is not for specialists or historians. But for amateurs and younger readers, it’s a fine introduction to Einstein’s contributions. Also, it may be a welcome addition in any modern physics course for nonmajors. In 1921, Einstein commented, “It strikes me as unfair, and even in bad taste, to select a few individuals for boundless admiration, attributing superhuman powers of mind and character to them.” Today, we still wait for good popular science books to repair this circumstance.