Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Into the Intro: The Cambridge Companion to Einstein

This volume brings together fourteen essays by historians and philosophers of science on various aspects of the writings of Albert Einstein. Together they are meant to provide a guide to Einstein’s work and the extensive literature about it. The essays can be read independently of one another, though most of them gain from being read in conjunction with others. All of them should be accessible to a broad audience. The use of equations, for instance, has been kept to a minimum throughout this volume. The first ten essays deal with Einstein’s contributions to physics and with various philosophical implications of these contributions. The next three essays directly address some of Einstein’s more philosophical writings and the impact of his work on the twentieth century philosophy of science. The final essay is on Einstein’s political writings. In this introduction we give a brief overview of Einstein’s life and career to provide some context for this collection of essays and highlight some themes addressed more fully in the individual contributions to this volume.

Albert Einstein (1879–1955) was born in the Swabian city of Ulm, the first child of upwardly mobile Jewish parents, Hermann and Pauline (née Koch). In 1880, Hermann ’s featherbed business failed and he moved his family to Munich, where with one of his brothers he started a gas and water installation business. In 1885, they founded an electrotechnical factory. Growing up around dynamos and electromotors, Einstein developed an early interest in electrodynamics, the field in which he would develop his special theory of relativity. In his “Autobiographical Notes,”  he recalled two other experiences that drew him to science at an early age: being shown a compass by his father when he was four or five years old and reading a book on Euclidean geometry at the age of twelve (Einstein 1949a , 9).

In 1894, when the family business was faltering, Einstein’s father and uncle moved their factory to Pavia in Italy. His parents and his only sibling, his younger sister Maja , moved to Milan and then to Pavia, while Einstein stayed behind in Munich to finish high school at the Luitpold Gymnasium. He soon dropped out, however, and joined his family in

Pavia. In October 1895, at the age of sixteen, he traveled to Switzerland to take the entrance exam to the Federal Polytechnic, now known as the Eidgen ö ssische Technische Hochschule (ETH), in Zurich. Although he did well on the science and mathematics portions of the exam, he failed the exam overall (CPAE 1, 10–12). After completing his secondary education at the Aargau Cantonal School in Aarau, he was admitted to the ETH the following year, still only seventeen, and began his studies to become a high school mathematics and physics teacher. Among his classmates were Marcel Grossmann , on whose notes he relied to pass exams as he frequently skipped class, and Mileva Maric´ , who would become his first wife.

In 1900, Einstein graduated fourth in a class of five. Initially, he could only find employment as a substitute teacher and a private tutor. With the help of Grossmann he eventually landed a job at the Patent Office in Bern. In June 1902, he took up a position there as patent examiner third class. He had become a Swiss citizen the year before, after having renounced his German citizenship back in 1896 . Meanwhile, Maric´ had given birth to the couple’s first child. It appears that this child, a girl they named Lieserl, was given up for adoption and died in childhood, but exactly what happened to her has never been established. Maric´had been struggling at the ETH and the pregnancy effectively put an end to her studies. In January 1903, the couple finally married. Einstein’s parents had strongly opposed the match. His father had been on his deathbed in October 1902, broken by a string of business failures, when he had finally relented and given his consent.  The couple would have two more children, two sons, Hans Albert and Eduard. The scientific partnership they had envisioned when they were both students at the ETH never materialized (Stachel 1996 ). Maric´ did not become a member of the mock Olympia Academy that Einstein formed around this time with his friends Maurice Solovine and Conrad Habicht to discuss readings of shared interest, mostly in philosophy. It is not clear whether Maric´ participated in these discussions even though they were sometimes held at her and Einstein’s own apartment.

Thanks to a list by Solovine (Einstein 1956b , viii), we have a record of the readings of the Olympia Academy, which included works by Baruch Spinoza, David Hume, John Stuart Mill, Hermann von Helmholtz, Ernst Mach , and Henri Poincaré . As a teenager, at the recommendation of Max Talmud (later changed to Talmey), a medical student who regularly dined with the Einstein family, he had read Immanuel Kant ’s Critique of Pure Reason. Einstein would make creative use of the ideas of these authors in his own thinking – of Hume and Mach, for instance, in the development of special relativity and of Mach in the development of general relativity (see Chapter 6).

Another friend with whom Einstein discussed scientific and philosophical matters during his early years in Berne was Michele Besso . Their lifelong friendship began while they were both students at the ETH . In 1904, on Einstein’s recommendation, Besso joined Einstein at the Patent Office. Besso became an important “sounding board” for Einstein’s developing ideas. The 1905 paper introducing special relativity famously has no references but acknowledges the help of one person – Besso.

In the years 1902–4, Einstein published three papers on statistical mechanics, now sometimes referred to as the “statistical trilogy”. Many of the results presented in these papers had been found earlier by Ludwig Boltzmann and Josiah Willard Gibbs . At the time, Einstein only knew some of Boltzmann ’s work and none of Gibbs’s. Even though Einstein’s results were not new, they played an important role in his subsequent work. The interpretation of probabilities as time averages led him to consider fluctuations, which became the central tool in his attempts to understand microphysics. In the final installment of the statistical trilogy, Einstein finally did something highly original. He applied the formalism developed to deal with fluctuations in gases to fluctuations in heat or black-body radiation, setting the stage for some of his signature contributions to quantum theory in the years ahead.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, came the papers of the annus mirabilis, Einstein’s year of miracles. Other than the statistical trilogy, there are few sources to document the development of Einstein’s thought leading up to them. Largely on the basis of scattered clues in his correspondence with Maric´and later recollections of both Einstein and Besso, his main scientific confidant at the time, Robert Rynasiewicz and Jürgen Renn have speculated that prior to 1905 Einstein was trying to lay a new atomistic foundation for all of physics. By 1905, they argue, Einstein had come to realize that this attempt was premature. The papers of his miracle year, on this view, should be seen as those parts of a much larger effort that Einstein felt were ready to be presented to the scientific community, each establishing some secure “fixed point from which to carry on”.

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