A Source Book in Astronomy, 1900–1950

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Author: Albert Einstein  | Date: 1934

Albert Einstein "The World as I See It," New York 1934 78–81

Remarks on the General Theory of Relativity1

By Albert Einstein

The special theory of relativity, which was simply a systematic development of the electro-dynamics of Clerk Maxwell and Lorentz, pointed beyond itself. Should the independence of physical laws of the state of motion of the co-ordinate system be restricted to the uniform translatory motion of co-ordinate systems in respect to each other? What has nature to do with our co-ordinate systems and their state of motion? If it is necessary for the purpose of describing nature, to make use of a co-ordinate system arbitrarily introduced by us, then the choice of its state of motion ought to be subject to no restriction; the laws ought to be entirely independent of this choice (general principle of relativity).

The establishment of this general principle of relativity is made easier by a fact of experience that has long been known, namely that the weight and the inertia of a body are controlled by the same constant. (Equality of inertial and gravitational mass.) Imagine a coordinate system which is rotating uniformly with respect to an inertial system in the Newtonian manner. The centrifugal forces which manifest themselves in relation to this system must, according to Newton’s teaching, be regarded as effects of inertia. But these centrifugal forces are, exactly like the forces of gravity, proportional to the masses of the bodies. Ought it not to be possible in this case to regard the co-ordinate system as stationary and the centrifugal forces as gravitational forces? This seems the obvious view, but classical mechanics forbid it.

This hasty consideration suggests that a general theory of relativity must supply the laws of gravitation, and the consistent following up of the idea has justified our hopes.

But the path was thornier than one might suppose, because it demanded the abandonment of Euclidean geometry. This is to say, the laws according to which fixed bodies may be arranged in space, do not completely accord with the spatial laws attributed to bodies by Euclidean geometry. This is what we mean when we talk of the ’curvature of space.’ The fundamental concepts of the ’straight line,’ the ’plane,’ etc., thereby lose their precise significance in physics.

In the general theory of relativity the doctrine of space and time, or kinematics, no longer figures as a fundamental independent of the rest of physics. The geometrical behaviour of bodies and the motion of clocks rather depend on gravitational fields, which in their turn are produced by matter.

The new theory of gravitation diverges considerably, as regards principles, from Newton’s theory. But its practical results agree so nearly with those of Newton’s theory that it is difficult to find criteria for distinguishing them which are accessible to experience. Such have been discovered so far:—

(1) In the revolution of the ellipses of the planetary orbits round the sun (confirmed in the case of Mercury).

(2) In the curving of light rays by the action of gravitational fields (confirmed by the English photographs of eclipses).

(3) In a displacement of the spectral lines towards the red end of the spectrum in the case of light transmitted to us from stars of considerable magnitude.

The chief attraction of the theory lies in its logical completeness. If a single one of the conclusions drawn from it proves wrong, it must be given up; to modify it without destroying the whole structure seems to be impossible.

Let no one suppose, however, that the mighty work of Newton can really be superseded by this or any other theory. His great and lucid ideas will retain their unique significance for all time as the foundation of our whole modern conceptual structure in the sphere of natural philosophy.

1 [See selection 58 above for an important deduction from the Special theory of Relativity, and selection 63 for de Sitter’s presentation of both the Special and General theories.]

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Chicago: Albert Einstein, "Remarks on the General Theory of Relativity," A Source Book in Astronomy, 1900–1950 in A Source Book in Astronomy, 1900–1950, ed. Harlow Shapley (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960), 372–373. Original Sources, accessed April 23, 2018, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DC67JJ8Z9ID8G2Y.

MLA: Einstein, Albert. "Remarks on the General Theory of Relativity." A Source Book in Astronomy, 1900–1950, in A Source Book in Astronomy, 1900–1950, edited by Harlow Shapley, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1960, pp. 372–373. Original Sources. 23 Apr. 2018. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DC67JJ8Z9ID8G2Y.

Harvard: Einstein, A, 'Remarks on the General Theory of Relativity' in A Source Book in Astronomy, 1900–1950. cited in 1960, A Source Book in Astronomy, 1900–1950, ed. , Harvard University Press, Cambridge, pp.372–373. Original Sources, retrieved 23 April 2018, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DC67JJ8Z9ID8G2Y.