Textbook Review – “Relativity” by Albert Einstein

In the first textbook review by request of a reader, I’ve got Relativity: The Special and the General Theory by Albert Einstein. Is the original text still worth your time? Read on to find out, or post a comment to speak your piece about this or any other text on the subject.

General Information

Title: Relativity: The Special and the General Theory
Author: Albert Einstein
Original Publication Date: Portions were published as early as 1906, but this edition is copyright 1961, and contains material that was current at that time.
ISBN: 0-517-88441-0
Cover Price: $7.00US, $9.50Can
Intended Audience: This book is aimed at people who are interested in the philosophy and implications of relativity, but are not familiar with the higher math involved in much of the study. High school algebra should be enough to follow this book, although some of the formulae presented require higher knowledge than that to derive.
Buy from: Amazon.com or Amazon.ca

Subject Covered

This is a reprint of the latest versions of Einstein’s papers on Special Relativity and General Relativity. It also includes five appendices to expand on topics alluded to therein, as well as to discuss some of the more philosophical implications.

I must confess that I have never been able to read the entire fifth appendix, about some of the philosophical implications of the theory and the nature of space. It’s a discussion that, frankly, doesn’t interest me. Therefore, this review technically only covers the first 155 pages of the 180 page book. Part of the reason I find that so difficult to read is that Einstein assumes the reader is familiar with what philosophers thought about space before the theory of relativity was introduced, and as such, he refers to the opinion of a philosopher without describing the thoughts in several instances. I found that I was easily lost in that section because of this.

High Point

Unlike most texts, this doesn’t use the typical approach. Most of them begin by discussing the experiments that proved the Newtonian theory was not sufficient, and then introduce relativity. Einstein was sure relativity was right before those experiments, though, and this uses his approach of building the reasons relativity is required from a theoretical standpoint that a lot of readers find more comfortable.

Low Point

This book does assume that the reader is familiar with some topics that most physicists were discussing at the time. One of these is the invariance of the speed of light. The text assumes the reader is aware of this principle, but that’s usually not the case. It is invariant, though. If you calculate the speed of light from electromagnetic theory, you’ll find that the expression is independent of the conditions in which that light exists. (It depends on two other physical constants, and that’s it.) There have also been numerous experiments which demonstrate this as well, the most famous of which is the Michelson-Morley experiment.

The Scores

The clarity of the text is somewhat hampered by the formal language that was in style at the time it was written. (This language is still in style in most modern math texts and publications.) The concepts are very clear, once you overcome the language. I give it 3 out of 6.

The structure of the text is very good, considering the target audience. The logic involved in building the theory is reproduced in the order it occured to Einstein, so the flow there is fantastic. The only major derivation included is relegated to an appendix. Some of the simpler derivations are described, but are not reproduced in detail. Other derivations, such as the equivalence of matter and energy, or anything else involving tensor calculus, are omitted completely, which is appropriate for the stated audience. I give the structure 5 out of 6.

The examples were few and far between. They are included only in cases where they are useful for presenting a new concept. They do not exist for the sake of being an example, and those in the second part of the book are rarely situations that will be encountered by people in the course of their lives. I give it 3 out of 6.

There were no exercises in this textbook. I’ll give it 1 out of 6, rather than 0, because some readers can create exercises out of the proofs with omitted details.

This book is not terribly complete for an introductory relativity text. This is mainly due to the fact that it’s a reproduction of the original paper on the subject, which means that most of the topics covered by other introductory texts on the subject hadn’t been fully explored when this was published. Some of the more notable topics include the transformation of uniform accelerations under special relativity, the Minkowski space-time diagram, and the introduction of a non-Euclidean metric in special relativity. I give it 3 out of 6.

The editing of the body of the text was very good, but the editing of the math was poor, particularly in the first appendix. Most of the problems were missing parentheses, “=” in place of “-“, or missing prime (‘) symbols, but at one point in the appendix an entire variable is missing. These problems can lead to difficulties, especially since there is such a lack of mathematical detail. The readers not already familiar with the subject can sometimes be thrown by these errors. However, in most cases, no confusion should occur. I give it 4 out of 6.

Overall, this is a decent book, but not a great textbook. I would recommend it to those with a historical interest in the early papers on the subject, or to those who are interested in the concepts but have weak mathematical backgrounds. I would not recommend it as the sole textbook for use in a college level class on the subject, but it may serve as an interesting supplimental on the subject. That means it hit its target audience, so I’ll give it 5 out of 6.

In total, Relativity: The Special and the General Theory receives 24 out of 42.