Gaga for Gravitation

A remarkable publishing event occurred in September 1973: the release of a 1,279-page book, weighing more than six pounds, with the simple title, Gravitation. Wags were quick to remark that the book was not just about gravitation, but a significant source of it. Though physicists and their students have adopted many nicknames for the book since its release, it is known most commonly as “MTW,” for the authors’ initials: Charles Misner, Kip Thorne, and John Wheeler.

Gravitation focuses on the general theory of relativity, Albert Einstein’s remarkable theory of gravity. Einstein introduced his theory one hundred years ago this month, in November 1915. His major insight was that space and time were actors in the story of nature, not merely a fixed stage on which all the other activity played out. Space and time, on Einstein’s account, were dynamical — they could warp and bend in response to the placement and motion of large objects. That warping, in turn, would affect the objects’ motion, diverting them from a straight and narrow path.

One year after the armistice that ended the First World War, a British team announced that they had confirmed one of Einstein’s key predictions, that gravity could bend the path of starlight. The dramatic announcement propelled Einstein and his general theory to instant stardom. Yet interest in the theory waned over the 1930s. Einstein noted plaintively, in a preface for a colleague’s textbook in 1942, “I believe that more time and effort might well be devoted to the systematic teaching of the theory of relativity than is usual at present at most universities.”

Years passed, but eventually some charismatic teachers began to heed Einstein’s call. Among the first was John Wheeler, who began to offer Physics 570, a full-length course on general relativity, at Princeton University —> Read More