Subtle Is the Lord: The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein

By Abraham Pais | Go to book overview
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17
Unified Field Theory

17a. Particles and Fields around 1920

Einstein died early on a Monday morning. The day before, he had asked for his most recent pages of calculations on unified field theory. The awareness of unfinished work was with him, and not just in those final hours when he knew that death was near. It had been so throughout his life. Nearly forty years earlier, he had written to Felix Klein:

However we select from nature a complex [of phenomena] using the criterion of simplicity, in no case will its theoretical treatment turn out to be forever appropriate (sufficient). Newton's theory, for example, represents the gravitational field in a seemingly complete way by means of the potential ϕ. This description proves to be wanting; the functions gμν take its place. But I do not doubt that the day will come when that description, too, will have to yield to another one, for reasons which at present we do not yet surmise. I believe that this process of deepening the theory has no limits. [E1]

That was written in 1917, shortly before he began his search for the unification of gravitation and electromagnetism. Those were still the days in which he knew with unerring instinct how to select complexes from nature to guide his scientific steps. Even then he already had a keen taste for mathematical elegance as well, but did not yet believe that formal arguments alone could be relied upon as markers for the next progress in physics. Thus, later in 1917, when Felix Klein wrote to him about the conformal invariance of the Maxwell equations [K1], he replied:

It does seem to me that you highly overrate the value of formal points of view. These may be valuable when an already found [his italics] truth needs to be formulated in a final form, but fail almost always as heuristic aids. [E2]

Nothing is more striking about the later Einstein than his change of position in regard to this advice, given when he was in his late thirties. I do not believe that his excessive reliance in later years on formal simplicity did him much good, although I do not accept the view of some that this change was tragic. Nothing in Einstein's scientific career was tragic, even though some of his work will be remembered forever and some of it will be forgotten. In any event, when Einstein embarked on his program for a unified field theory, his motivation was thoroughly

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