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If a person has a good grounding in classical mechanics, electrodynamics and special relativity, is Einstein's 1916 paper a recommended way of learning about the subject?

After looking through it briefly, I like what I see because he explains all about tensors from first principles. On the other hand, I'm not too sure if his commentary on the following is outdated:

  • Ehrenfest paradox
  • Mach's Principle
  • other sections
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I would suggest Carrol's text if you are a looking for an introduction. I find that, with few exceptions, learning from the original papers in physics is unnecessary and unconstructive, unless the material is so advanced or so new that a good textbook or review artivle does not exist. By reading the original you are giving up on years of refinement in understanding, presentation and pedagogy for no real gain. I understand the historical impulse, but it would be better to learn the topic and then read the original. – BebopButUnsteady Sep 1 '11 at 18:14
Original papers often contain subtle insights which get left out of more modern, glossy, refined treatments. They also sometimes have antiquated notation and overly complex derivations. An extreme example would be learning mechanics from Newton's Principia- bad idea! Overall, for a first pass through, I think you're usually better off with the modern pre-digested versions. – user1631 Sep 1 '11 at 18:47
@user1631: And you can often run into misconceptions and wrong things learning from original papers. Could you imagine trying to learn QFT by starting with the Dirac electron sea? – Jerry Schirmer Sep 1 '11 at 19:02
This is not going to lead to a consensus. CW? – Jen Sep 1 '11 at 21:56
And, @Ron - I understand a healthy distaste for some textbooks, but perhaps we could avoid generally disparaging those who spend time writing them? – Jen Sep 2 '11 at 0:19
up vote 10 down vote accepted

No. It is not a good starting point. If nothing else, modern notation is very different from Einstein's original notation. Old notation left a lot to be desired about separating tensors from tensor components, if nothing else.

There has also been a lot of new insight into topology, surface charges, the action principle, the nature of black holes and exact solutions to Einstein's equations, and gravitational radiation, amongst many other things, over the past 100 years. If you would like, i could generate a list of better starting books, depending on your beginning fluency with math/physics.

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If you do generate a list of books, this question would be the perfect place to post it. – David Z Sep 1 '11 at 21:12
The notation isn't outdated. The component notation is still useful. The paper is a very good introduction. It's unfortunate that this answer was accepted. It is true that reading the original isn't usually the best option, but this is an exception because Einstein included everything essential for his contemporaries who were unfamiliar with the math. – MadScientist Jul 12 '12 at 11:16
@Jerry I wouldn't recommend MTW as an introduction because the book is just too big. That might sound superficial, but hauling around a 35 lb awkwardly large tome is a major impediment to most study habits. When learning a subject for the first time you probably want to pick up the book and put it down a lot in between solving problems. It is a great reference though. I doubt many people learn GR from it. Schutz is excellent -especially the chapters on differential geometry. Maybe that is the best intro to differental geometry out there. – MadScientist Jul 12 '12 at 15:52
@Jerry ...But there is alot to plow through before getting to the chapter on Einstein's Field Equations. When I introduce myself to a subject I want to read the absolute minimum in order to get the core ideas. A less motivated beginner might not make it to the 7th chapter of Schutz. Einstein's original presentation is a good place to go for that. Dirac's General Relativity is good too -the first 40 pages provide enough info to grasp the basics of the theory (the 3 classic experiments). Plus, the logic of GR is actually very simple and reading the original paper highlights that. – MadScientist Jul 12 '12 at 15:59
@Jerry Also, the original paper is almost a work of art that merits being read. Like Darwin's Origin of Species, there is nothing in it that is conceptually confused and I can't imagine it hindering understanding. The only issue is that a couple of Einstein's calculations are not as simple as they could be. In those cases, it is easy to find simpler calculations in other books. – MadScientist Jul 12 '12 at 16:03


Some of the commentary may be outdated, but you can gain a lot of perspective. What problem was he solving, where did he come from, what was the thinking at the time, what was the available data, etc. You also get a good, short, concise introduction to the subject, and older scientific papers tend to be more readable and fun than modern ones.

You will read a standard textbook like Wald anyways, read the Einstein papers for fun!

Finally, if you're going to be a research scientist, it's a good reference point how to write your own papers =)

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For historical perspective, I would recommend (possibly in lieu of the papers) Einstein's 1920 book "The special and general theory of relativity". – Willie Wong Sep 1 '11 at 22:15
@Willie Wong: That book has almost no GR, it is merely a popular exposition of Special Relativity, with no mathematics. – Eduardo Guerras Valera Dec 10 '12 at 11:12
@Eduardo: I disagree with "has almost no GR". The entirety of Part 2 is dedicated to it. Note further that I stated "historical perspective", which is in respect to what mtrencseni wrote above "What problem was he solving, where did he come from, what was the thinking at the time..." None of which requires mathematics. – Willie Wong Dec 10 '12 at 11:29
@Willie Wong: You are right about part 2 dedicated to General Relativity. But this part has absolutely no maths. Whereas part I (about Special Relativity) succeeds in explaining some fundamental facts (like relativity of simultaneity and Lorentz transformation) because it can be done with some basic maths but no tensor formalism, the exposition of GR is imho a complete failure because no one (not even Einstein) can give a realistic taste of GR with no maths at all. That is of course a personal opinion. – Eduardo Guerras Valera Dec 10 '12 at 11:42

I personally would suggest learning General Relativity from a more standard Textbook rather than choosing Einsteins papers.

I will however recommend reading his papers after you have had an introduction to the subject, as it will give you interesting historical insights and appreciation of the subject.

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Read Einstein! However, be aware that he was using a volume-fixing gauge sometimes in those papers, and did not do a first-principles exposition which was completely gauge-free until a review article some years later (I am saying this from memory, I don't remember the content of the original article very well, but I remember there was a very lucid later review by Einstein, and I did read an elementary textbook first). The best source in my opinion is Dirac's General Relativity book, because it's the shortest. Textbooks tend to say way too much, making it impossible to slog through them. General Relativity is not a big subject if you just get off the ground, it can be done by high school students. The interesting modern stuff is covered in a slightly too-formal way in Hawking and Ellis.

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I know this is not your point, but I'm now imagining my HS tutoring students trying to work through Hawking and Ellis... – Jerry Schirmer Sep 2 '11 at 6:33

Einstein was an uebermensch ... and I do recommend beginning with his original paper.
I also recommend the review of his paper by a modern scholar, prof. Michel Jannssenn "Of pots and holes: Einstein's bumpy road to general relativity" in: Annalen der Physik 14, Supplement, 58-85 (2005), freely available in the wrong typefaces at, but only after you read Einstein's paper. see also his home page although he might be wrong on the Einstein--Hilbert controversy which has been cooked up recently.

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I don't study General Relativity, but I've always found the original work a bad place to start learning something for the first time. First of all, the work may discuss the development of previous work that contributes to the current conclusions, and this will be problematic for the first time reader. For example, the idea of Cooper pairs or electron lattice coupling were developed long before the BCS theory of superconductivity was developed. If I wanted to learn about BCS theory, the BCS PR paper would be a bad place to start my learning process. Second, the first paper about a new phenomena probably contains things that are incomplete, or even flat out incorrect, and may be misleading. I would definitely recommend a text book or at least a review paper before the original paper, particularly for a relatively mature subject like GR, or a subject under the umbrella of a beast like condensed matter.

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Sure, you should always look at the source. What comes after Einstein is not as revolutionary as what he defined, as far as I know. Then again, all people gets corrected with time :) And Einstein was a mere human, not any 'übermench', although incredibly daring in his thoughts. But to get the feeling of what he saw you need his own words, not those 'interpreting' him later. That will allow you a first hand impression, and a deeper understanding later of where the changes comes to be between his original ideas and the way it is described today.

Well, as I see it.

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The Einstein Princeton lectures of 1921 may be a better starting point. He did there a great effort to present the material in a more pedagogical way, full of heuristic insights. Also, the formalism is somewhat closer to nowadays texts.

They are published in english under the title "The Principle of Relativity", and in german under "Grundzüge der Relativitätstheorie" (Springer). Both versions come with two interesting appendices Einstein wrote much later (in the early 50s I think), the first is about cosmology, the second is his last scientific paper ("Relativistische Theorie des nicht symmetrischen Feldes" - Relativistic Theory of the Non-Symmetric Field). A LaTeX transcription of the english text of the lectures (without the appendices) is now available for free in the Gutenberg Project site.

It is a great text to grasp a little bit how was Einstein brilliant heuristic thinking, and it is not quite difficult to study, at least when compared to the 1916 Annalen der Physik paper.

NOTE: Not to be confused with another different book Einstein wrote, called "Relativity - The Special and the General Theory", which is merely a popular, non-mathematical introduction to Special Relativity (nice, of course, for readers with other interests - there you find the famous explanation of simultaneity with the train and the light flashes, for instance)

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Could any native speaker correct my english here? Thanks! – Eduardo Guerras Valera Jan 24 '13 at 12:11

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