“Everybody knows that Einstein did something astonishing,” writes Bertrand Russell in the opening passage of ABC of Relativity, “but very few people know exactly what it was. It is generally recognized that he revolutionized our conception of the physical world, but the new conceptions are wrapped up in mathematical technicalities. It is true that there are innumerable popular accounts of the theory of relativity, but they generally cease to be intelligible just at the point where they begin to say something important.”
Eighty-seven years after it was written, ABC of Relativity still stands as one of the most intelligible introductions to Albert Einstein’s theories. Russell wrote the book in 1925 as a companion to his earlier volume, ABC of Atoms. The project of writing books for a general readership was born of necessity. Russell had no academic appointment, and needed the money. But as Peter Clark explains in his introduction to the Routledge fifth edition to ABC of Relativity, the early 1920s were also a time when Russell was becoming increasingly preoccupied with social and political issues. He believed that many of the social ills of the period, including the rise of nationalism, were consequences of a widespread and entrenched irrationality, born of ignorance and a lack of education. Writes Clark:
It was certainly a heroic period in Russell’s life, when he earnestly believed that the sort of blind unthinking prejudice–which he conceived to be fundamentally responsible for the horrors of the First World War–could be transcended by the dissemination of knowledge and the exercise in critical reasoning power by all classes of society. His huge output in this period was designed to bring within, as far as possible, everyone’s grasp the freedom of thought and action which knowledge and learning brings. That spirit of enlightenment certainly pervades the ABC of Relativity.
Thanks to UbuWeb, you can listen to an abridged audio version of ABC of Relativity online. The book is read by English actor Derek Jacobi (who also starred in the film we featured last week on Alan Turing: Breaking the Code). Jacobi reads one of the later editions of ABC of Relativity. In 1959, and again in 1969, Russell consented to revisions by physicist Felix Pirani. Chapter 11 was rewritten by Pirani to incorporate the expansion of the universe, which wasn’t announced by Edwin Hubble until four years after the first edition of Russell’s book. The one troubling thing about the text, as it now stands, is that Pirani didn’t limit himself to the revisions made under Russell’s supervision. He made more changes in 1985, fifteen years after Russell’s death.
Here is the audio book, divided into chapters:
- Touch and Sight: The Earth and the Heavens
- What Happens and What is Observed
- The Velocity of Light
- Clocks and Foot-rules
- The Special Theory of Relativity
- Intervals in Space-Time
- Einstein’s Law of Gravitation
- Proofs of Einstein’s Law of Gravitation
- Mass, Momentum, Energy, and Action
- The Expanding Universe
- Conventions and Natural Laws
- The Abolition of ‘Force’
- What is Matter?
- Philosophical Consequences
The audio text listed above also appears in our list of Free Audio Books.