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About the Author

Abraham Pais was Detlev W. Bronk Professor Emeritus at The Rockefeller University in New York City.

Works by Abraham Pais

Associated Works

Paul Dirac: The Man and his Work (1998) — Contributor — 60 copies


Common Knowledge

Canonical name
Pais, Abraham
Other names
Pais, Bram
Date of death
Netherlands (birth)
Amsterdam, Netherlands
Place of death
Copenhagen, Denmark
Places of residence
Princeton, New Jersey, USA
New York, New York, USA
Copenhagen, Denmark
University of Amsterdam (BSc)
University of Utrecht (MA| PhD)
historian of science
theoretical physicist
Holocaust survivor (show all 8)
Pais, Josh (son)
Uhlenbeck, George (teacher)
Kramers, Hendrik Anthony (colleague)
Bohr, Niels (supervisor)
Einstein, Albert (colleague)
Nicolaisen, Ida (wife)
Rockefeller University
Institute for Advanced Study
Niels Bohr Institute
Awards and honors
Lewis Thomas Prize for Writing about Science (1995)
National Academy of Sciences (1962)
American Philosophical Society (1984)
American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1972)
J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Prize (1979)
Short biography
Abraham Pais was born to a Jewish family in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. His parents were Kaatje "Cato" (van Kleeff) and Isaiah "Jacques" Pais, a descendant of 17th century Sephardic Jewish immigrants from Portugal. They were both elementary school teachers. He also had a younger sister, Annie. Pais graduated first in his class in high school, having learned to speak English, French, and German. He studied at the University of Amsterdam and was awarded two Bachelor of Science degrees in physics and mathematics in 1938, with minors in chemistry and astronomy. That autumn, he enrolled for graduate classes at University of Utrecht under George Eugen Uhlenbeck, and also got to know Hendrik Anthony Kramers, a physics professor at Leiden University who lectured at Utrecht. He also was guided by Leonard Salomon Ornstein and influenced by discussions with Léon Rosenfeld of the University of Liège. Pais completed his master's degree in April 1940. In May, Nazi Germany invaded the Netherlands in World War II. Pais worked feverishly to complete his dissertation and obtained his doctoral degree in theoretical physics on June 9; his was the last PhD issued to a Dutch Jew until after the war. Pais survived the Nazi occupation in hiding with the help of a friend, Tina Strobos, and his harrowing experiences stayed with him all his life. His sister Annie died at the Sobibor extermination camp. After the war, Pais served briefly as an assistant to Niels Bohr in Denmark before emigrating to the USA in 1946. He joined the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, where he was a colleague of Albert Einstein. Over the next 25 years, he made many important contributions to elementary particle theory. In 1963, he moved to Rockefeller University in New York City to lead the theoretical physics group, finishing his career as the Detlev W. Bronk Professor Emeritus. After his retirement, he and his third wife, Danish anthropologist Ida Nicolaisen, spent half of each year in Copenhagen, where he worked at the Niels Bohr Institute. In the late 1970s, Pais turned to writing science history and biography. His books included the highly-acclaimed Subtle Is the Lord: The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein (1982) and Inward Bound: Of Matter and Forces in the Physical World (1986). He also wrote Niels Bohr's Times: In Physics, Philosophy, and Polity (1991), and in 1995 teamed with Laurie M. Brown and Sir Brian Pippard on a three-volume reference work, Twentieth Century Physics. That year, Rockefeller University awarded him the Lewis Thomas Prize for Writing about Science. He published his autobiography, A Tale of Two Continents: A Physicist's Life in a Turbulent World, in 1997. His book The Genius of Science: A Portrait Gallery (2000) contains biographies of 17 distinguished physicists he had known personally. Pais was working on a biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer at the time of his death; it was completed by Robert P. Crease and published posthumously as J. Robert Oppenheimer: A Life (2006).



This is my third re-read of this masterful take on Einstein’s work and life, beginning in the mid-90s. After all these years is still unsurpassed.

A few notes this time round.

One thing I always liked to demonstrate the 4-dimensionality of spacetime is a thought experiment: If you describe the motion of an apple with a 3-dimensional vector (up/down, left/right and forward/back), then when it's at relative rest, the direction of that vector is undefined. Stopping an object shouldn't break the math behind physics, nor should it leave us with a hidden direction variable - so something else has to be going on. Adding a fourth dimension means that when at rest in 3-space, the object is at maximum speed in the fourth dimension - time. Speeding up in one of the other 3 space dimensions necessarily means slowing down in the time direction, and you no longer need to use the magnitude of the vector to describe speed, it can be used for energy instead - plus the orthogonal space directions to the object's own time direction are no longer tied to the observer's space directions, so even time rate and dimensional length can change with the object's relative speed - therefore you get all the effects of Special Relativity for free (That is a good analogy, though it can be slightly misleading if we're not careful to remember (as best we can) to apply hyperbolic intuition to the time dimensionality of the analogy). In fact it gets even cooler when you accept time is just another direction - because it means moving entirely in a space direction is the fastest you can go - it’s instantaneously fast, you transition through every point on the topological countour of the universe in the direction of your travel in an instant. To everyone else though, it appears you move at the speed of light, because as you rotated your direction vector, you also rotated your space vector into the time domain. Meaning that you no longer experience the universe as being spacelike in the direction of your travel (it shrinks, a la length contraction), you experience it as timelike (the trailing clock leads) - because of this, even though you according to you, you made the trip across the universe in an instant, when you arrive, the universe disagrees and at your destination, clocks have moved forward by a number of seconds - the number of meters you travelled divided by conversion factor c to get seconds. This also happens to a lesser degree at subluminal speeds, and you can intuit to what degree using trigonometry.

To get the angle from the speed, simply perform an inverse sine - given the limitations of text I’ll call it “asin” - and to get the Lorentz factor for time dilation and length contraction etc, simply take the cosine, and invert it. So 1/cos(asin(v/c)). Turns out this is 100% equivalent to the Lorentz factor mostly taught, just way more intuitive.

It should be noted that special relativity is special for a reason: for one "speed through the time dimension" doesn't make much sense as speed is a space changing in time. As in a distance travelled in a certain amount of time. We could go more generally and say "rate of change" but it’s always "the rate of change" of some property with respect to something else. If a "spatial" speed is the rate of change of space with respect to time, what is changing with respect to what in a "temporal" speed? Now you would be tempted to say "time is change with respect to space" but that's actually what is said to be happening inside a blackhole, objects "at rest" are very much not inside blackholes. “c” is actually the speed of (c)ausality, its the speed at which point a is able to affect point b. as in if i had a cosmic base ball bat to swing at pluto I can't hit Pluto faster than it takes light to reach it. "Objects "at rest" are very much not inside blackholes." I don't think black hole interiors can violate the Equivalence Principal. I could be wrong (I don't think anyone actually knows), but in theory everything in a black hole should be just as much at rest as anything else, provided we don't use the classical definition of rest. Similarly, any vector between two Minkowski events must normalize to c in order to fit within a Lorenz equation (which inherently creates the speed of causality). In a spacetime diagram, in order to change your degree of orientation in x, you must remove orientation in y, z, or t. Time is change with respect to space, provided we don't use the classical definition of velocity and acceleration. Inside a black hole, we are perhaps flipping the classical definition of speed, distance over time, turning it into time over distance, but once again, that's only referring to speed if we use speed in the classical sense, a ratio of distance and time.

Re-reading this almost 30 years on, the way Pais goes into on the development of GR is still top-notch. Most GR textbooks nowadays give the impression that Einstein came up with SR, realized that light should bend around the sun, and then went to sleep for several years before finally coming out with GR fully formed. I found the discussion of all the false starts very interesting, not least because it makes Einstein look more human. I also took notice this time round how it leads you through the thought process behind the development of GR. This book is at the perfect level for someone who has just taken a really good undergrad quantum sequence – you can see how the giants of the field tried to quantize radiation, and why all the things that seem like common sense at first glance don’t work well. Another great and counter-intuitive aspect of Pais’ book his argument that Einstein’s work on quantum physics was his most radical and important contribution to physics, and hence that his Nobel Prize was actually, if unintentionally, given for his most important work. According to Pais’ interpretation, Einstein’s opposition to the quantum mechanics arose precisely because he was the first person to fully appreciate just how strange and revolutionary quantum physics actually is. Hands down the best science book ever written for the laymen and laywoman. Back in the day we used a lot of tensor calculus in special relativity and it was (still is) kinda cool to see another approach for introducing them. If you however are not really satisfied with Pedro G. Ferreira’s take on Einstein’s work (and life), review to follow later on, and want a deeper mathematical understanding than "tensors are objects that behave like tensors", I would heartily recommend Pais’ book. He explains perfectly what tensors are in regard, to space, dual space and the tensor product and why they transform as they do, what the metric tensor does and why etc. It is still depressing to see that the greatest number of comments on Pais’ book on social media are inane sophomoric humor rather than scholarly discussions. It makes me wonder how many readers came to the site expecting another watered down science book filled with cute drawings and bombastic commentary about falling into Black Holes. Surprise!!! It's a college book! Abraham Pais was the real shit!
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antao | 5 other reviews | Jul 26, 2021 |
Subtle is the Lord is a biography of Albert Einstein by Abraham Pais. It brilliantly tells the story of Einstein and his development into a world-renowned Physicist. While covering his life, the book also covers the work that Einstein did in Physics. Starting with his youth and childhood, Subtle is the Lord addresses the theories of Einstein being bad in school by presenting his report card. Although it is true that Einstein didn’t particularly like the authoritative atmosphere of his school, he did not get terrible marks. He taught himself Differential and Integral Calculus by the time he was 16 or so and was wonderful at math.

While Einstein might have had some professional stumbling blocks, most people can agree that 1905 was the year for Einstein. He published six papers that year, with one of them gaining him the Nobel Prize and the others firmly planting him in the upper echelons of physicists. The six papers are:
(1. The light-quantum and the Photoelectric Effect. This one led to the Nobel Prize and was completed on March 17.
(2. A new determination of molecular dimensions, completed April 30. This one became his doctoral thesis and was quoted quite often.
(3. Brownian Motion, received May 11. A direct outgrowth of his thesis work.
(4. The first paper on Special Relativity, received June 30.
(5. The second paper on Special Relativity, containing E = mc^2 received September 27.
(6. The second paper on Brownian Motion, received December 19.

I particularly like the book because it doesn’t shy away from the Mathematics of Einstein’s theories. It discusses the ideas behind the things he developed and shows the state of affairs for each thing beforehand. For instance, before 1905 Einstein published some papers that he felt were lacking once he discovered the works of Gibbs and Boltzmann. It talks about his work on Brownian Motion, his work on the Photoelectric Effect, Special and General Relativity and many of the other things that he had a hand in. With Pais being a Physicist himself, he is able to explain the equations and what they mean.

This particular copy of Subtle is the Lord was printed in 1982, so it does not have further developments on Einstein’s theories and how they are accepted or denied now.
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Floyd3345 | 5 other reviews | Jun 15, 2019 |
Couldn't read all of this, too much advanced mathematics. Skipped those parts and just read inbetween.
Baku-X | 2 other reviews | Jan 10, 2017 |
Couldn't read all of this, too much advanced mathematics. Skipped those parts and just read inbetween.
BakuDreamer | 2 other reviews | Sep 7, 2013 |


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