The Perfect Theory: A Century of Geniuses and the Battle over General Relativity

by Pedro Ferreira

On the eve of the theory's 100th birthday, here is the first complete biography of Einstein’s theory of general relativity, revealing the personal feuds and ideological battles, the decades of neglect, the resurgence, and now, the deep questioning of a theory that has given us black holes, dark energy, and modern cosmology.

  • Format: Hardcover
  • ISBN-13/ EAN: 9780547554891
  • ISBN-10: 0547554893
  • Pages: 304
  • Publication Date: 02/04/2014
  • Carton Quantity: 12

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About the Book
About the Author
  • About the Book
    How did one elegant theory incite a scientific revolution?

    Physicists have been exploring, debating, and questioning the general theory of relativity ever since Albert Einstein first presented it in 1915. Their work has uncovered a number of the universe’s more surprising secrets, and many believe further wonders remain hidden within the theory’s tangle of equations, waiting to be exposed. In this sweeping narrative of science and culture, astrophysicist Pedro Ferreira brings general relativity to life through the story of the brilliant physicists, mathematicians, and astronomers who have taken up its challenge. For these scientists, the theory has been both a treasure trove and an enigma, fueling a century of intellectual struggle and triumph..

    Einstein’s theory, which explains the relationships among gravity, space, and time, is possibly the most perfect intellectual achievement of modern physics, yet studying it has always been a controversial endeavor. Relativists were the target of persecution in Hitler’s Germany, hounded in Stalin’s Russia, and disdained in 1950s America. Even today, PhD students are warned that specializing in general relativity will make them unemployable.

    Despite these pitfalls, general relativity has flourished, delivering key insights into our understanding of the origin of time and the evolution of all the stars and galaxies in the cosmos. Its adherents have revealed what lies at the farthest reaches of the universe, shed light on the smallest scales of existence, and explained how the fabric of reality emerges. Dark matter, dark energy, black holes, and string theory are all progeny of Einstein’s theory.

    We are in the midst of a momentous transformation in modern physics. As scientists look farther and more clearly into space than ever before, The Perfect Theory reveals the greater relevance of general relativity, showing us where it started, where it has led, and where it can still take us.

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  • About the Author
  • Excerpts
    Chapter 1
    If a Person Falls Freely

    During the autumn of 1907, Albert Einstein worked under pressure. He had been invited to deliver the definitive review of his theory of relativity to the Yearbook of Electronics and Radioactivity. It was a tall order, to summarize such an important piece of work at such short notice, especially since he could do so only in his spare time. From 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Monday through Saturday, Einstein could be found working at the Bern Federal Office for Intellectual Property in the newly built Postal and Telegraph Building, where he would meticulously pore over plans for newfangled electrical contraptions and figure out if there was any merit in them. Einstein’s boss had advised him, “When you pick up an application, think that everything the inventor says is wrong,” and he took his advice to heart. For much of the day, the notes and calculations for his own theories and discoveries had to be relegated to the second drawer of his desk, which he referred to as his “theoretical physics department.”
       Einstein’s review would recap his triumphant marriage of the old mechanics of Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton with the new electricity and magnetism of Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell. It would explain much of the weirdness that Einstein had uncovered a few years before, such as how clocks would run more slowly when moving, or how objects would shrink if they were speeding ahead. It would explain his strange and magical formula that showed how mass and energy were interchangeable, and that nothing could move faster than the speed of light. His review of his principle of relativity would describe how almost all of physics should be governed by a new common set of rules.
       In 1905, over a period of just a few months, Einstein had written a string of papers that were already transforming physics. In that inspired burst he had pointed out that light behaves like bundles of energy, much like particles of matter. He had also shown that the jittery, chaotic paths of pollen and dust careening through a dish of water could arise from the turmoil of water molecules, vibrating and bouncing off one another. And he had tackled a problem that had been plaguing physicists for almost half a century: how the laws of physics seem to behave differently depending on how you look at them. He had brought them together with his principle of relativity.
       All these discoveries were a staggering achievement, and Einstein had made them all while working as a lowly patent expert at the Swiss patent office in Bern, sifting through the scientific and technological developments of the day. In 1907, he was still there, having yet to move into the august academic world that seemed to elude him. In fact, for someone who had just rewritten some of the fundamental rules of physics, Einstein was thoroughly undistinguished. Throughout his unimpressive academic studies at the Polytechnic Institute in Zurich, Einstein skipped classes that didn’t interest him and antagonized the very people who could nurture his genius. One of his professors told him, “You are a very clever boy . . . But you have one great fault: you’ll never let yourself be told anything.” When Einstein’s supervisor prevented him from working on a topic of his own choice, Einstein handed in a lackluster final essay, lowering his grade to a point where he was unable to secure a post as an assistant at any of the universities to which he had applied.
       From his graduation in 1900 until he finally landed his job in the patent office in 1902, Einstein’s career was a sequence of failures. To compound his frustration, the doctoral thesis he submitted to the University of Zurich in 1901 was rejected a year later. In his submission, Einstein had set about to demolish some of the ideas put forward by Ludwig Boltzmann, one of the great theoretical physicists of the end of the nineteenth century. Einstein’s iconoclasm had not gone over well. It wasn’t until 1905, when he submitted one of his magical papers, “A New Determination of Molecular Dimensions,” that he finally obtained his doctorate. The degree, a newly diplomatic Einstein discovered, “considerably facilitates relations with people.”
       While Einstein struggled, his friend Marcel Grossmann was on the fast track to becoming an august professor. Well organized, studious, and beloved by his teachers, it was Grossmann who had saved Einstein from going off the rails by keeping detailed, immaculate notebooks of the lecture courses. Grossmann became close friends with Einstein and Einstein’s future wife, Mileva Marić, while they studied together in Zurich, and all three graduated in the same year. Unlike Einstein’s, Grossmann’s career had progressed smoothly from then on. He had been appointed as an assistant in Zurich and in 1902 had obtained his doctorate. After a short stint teaching in high schools, Grossmann had become a professor of descriptive geometry at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule, known as the ETH, in Zurich. Einstein had failed to even get an appointment as a schoolteacher. It was only through the recommendation of Grossmann’s father to an acquaintance, the head of the patent office in Bern, that Einstein had finally secured a job as a patent expert.
       Einstein’s job in the patent office was a blessing. After years of financial instability and depending on his father for an income, he was finally able to marry Mileva and begin to raise a family in Bern. The relative monotony of the patent office, with its clearly defined tasks and lack of distractions, seemed to be an ideal setting for Einstein to think things through. His assigned work took only a few hours to complete each day, leaving him time to focus on his puzzles. Sitting at his small wooden desk with only a few books and the papers from his “theoretical physics department,” he would perform experiments in his head. In these thought experiments (gedankenexperimenten as he called them in German) he would imagine situations and constructions in which he could explore physical laws to find out what they might do to the real world. In the absence of a real lab, he would play out carefully crafted games in his head, enacting events that he would scrutinize in detail. With the results of these experiments, Einstein knew just enough mathematics to be able to put his ideas to paper, creating exquisitely crafted jewels that would ultimately change the direction of physics.
       His employers at the patent office were pleased with Einstein’s work and promoted him to Expert II Class, yet they remained oblivious to his growing reputation. Einstein was still working on a daily quota of patents in 1907 when the German physicist Johannes Stark commissioned Einstein to write his review “On the Relativity Principle and the Conclusions Drawn From It.” He was given two months to write it, and in those two months Einstein realized that his principle of relativity was incomplete. It would need a thorough overhaul if it was to be truly general.
    The article in the Yearbook was to be a summary of Einstein’s original principle of relativity. This principle states that the laws of physics should look the same in any inertial frame of reference. The basic idea behind the principle was not new and had been around for centuries.
       The laws of physics and mechanics are rules for how things move, speed up, or slow down when subjected to forces. In the seventeenth century, the English physicist and mathematician Isaac Newton laid out a set of laws for how obj...

  • Reviews

    "It's been a heck of a century for relativity, and The Perfect Theory is a perfect guide for this most beloved branch of modern physics." —Sam Kean, Wall Street Journal

    "In The Perfect Theory, Ferreira masterfully portrays the science and scientists behind general relativity's star-crossed history and argues that even now we are only just beginning to realize its vitality as a tool for understanding the cosmos." —Scientific American

    "The Perfect Theory is a rollicking good read. We watch as Einstein’s brilliant successors struggle and squabble about everything from black holes to quantum gravity. With crisp explanations and narrative flair, Ferreira offers us a fun, fresh take on a magnificent part of modern science." —Steven Strogatz, Schurman Professor of Applied Mathematics, Cornell University, author of The Joy of x

    "Einstein’s general theory of relativity was the greatest of his many contributions to physics, but surprisingly little has been written about how the subject blossomed after his death, with profound implications for current cosmology and astrophysics. Pedro Ferreira provides an enthralling account of the ideas and personalities of those involved." —Sir Roger Penrose, Emeritus Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics, University of Oxford

    "Pedro Ferreira portrays a community ensnared by a single great idea. With vivid detail, he brings to life the awesome story of one of humanity’s greatest achievements." —Janna Levin, Professor of Physics and Astronomy, Barnard College/Columbia University, author of How the Universe Got Its Spots

    "Einstein's general relativity is a theory of unrivaled elegance and simplicity. But the history of general relativity is messy, unpredictable, and occasionally dramatic. Pedro Ferreira is an expert guide to the twists and turns scientists have gone through in a quest to understand space and time." —Sean Carroll, theoretical physicist, author of The Particle at the End of the Universe

    "A fascinating introduction to our present understanding of space, time, and gravity, and to the confusion about how to go about finding a still better theory." —P. James Peebles, Albert Einstein Professor Emeritus of Science, Princeton University

    "Einstein's beautiful theory is is now, more than ever, one of the liveliest frontiers of science, and crucial to our understanding of the cosmos. Pedro Ferreira describes, accessibly and non-technically, how the key breakthroughs have been made, and the personalities who made them." —Lord Martin Rees, Great Britain’s Astronomer Royal

    "You couldn't ask for a better guide to the outer reaches of the universe and the inner workings of the minds of those who've navigated it." —Marcus du Sautoy, Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, University of Oxford, author of The Music of the Primes

    "Ferreira does not downplay relativity’s complexity and avoids the easy route of oversimplifying it into a cosmic magic show. The result is one of the best popular accounts of how Einstein and his followers have been trying to explain the universe for decades." —Kirkus (starred review)

    "With palpable delight, Ferreira details false starts, chance discoveries, and the vindication of long-ridiculed ideas that emerged from the work that predicted singularities, M-theory, and dark energy. He also shows that Einstein didn’t work in a vacuum; international collaboration made confirmation of his theory possible, while overturning some initial conclusions. Perhaps most importantly, Ferreira’s clear explanations offer a wonderful look into a world of those who tackle the hard math that is ‘the key to understanding the history of the universe, the origin of time, and the evolution of... the cosmos.’" —Publishers Weekly

    "No book better prepares armchair physicists for the intellectual excitement ahead!" —Booklist (starred review)