Einstein 1920: Cosmological Difficulties of Newton’s Theory

Reference: Einstein’s 1920 Book

This paper presents Part III, Chapter 1 from the book RELATIVITY: THE SPECIAL AND GENERAL THEORY by A. EINSTEIN. The contents are from the original publication of this book by Henry Holt and Company, New York (1920).

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below is linked to the original materials.


Cosmological Difficulties of Newton’s Theory

Apart from the difficulty discussed in Section XXI, there is a second fundamental difficulty attending classical celestial mechanics, which, to the best of my knowledge, was first discussed in detail by the astronomer Seeliger. If we ponder over the question as to how the universe, considered as a whole, is to be regarded, the first answer that suggests itself to us is surely this: As regards space (and time) the universe is infinite. There are stars everywhere, so that the density of matter, although very variable in detail, is nevertheless on the average everywhere the same. In other words: However far we might travel through space, we should find everywhere an attenuated swarm of fixed stars of approximately the same kind and density.

We may assume the whole universe to be flat like a galaxy rotating whirlpool like. It extends outwards beyond it relatively solid core. Therefore, it is unlikely to have a uniform density of matter.

This view is not in harmony with the theory of Newton. The latter theory rather requires that the universe should have a kind of centre in which the density of the stars is a maximum, and that as we proceed outwards from this centre the group-density of the stars should diminish, until finally, at great distances, it is succeeded by an infinite region of emptiness. The stellar universe ought to be a finite island in the infinite ocean of space. [Proof.—According to the theory of Newton, the number of “lines of force” which come from infinity and terminate in a mass m is proportional to the mass m. If, on the average, the mass-density P0 is constant throughout the universe, then a sphere of volume V will enclose the average mass P0V. Thus the number of lines of force passing through the surface F of the sphere into its interior is proportional to P0V. For unit area of the surface of the sphere the number of lines of force which enters the sphere is thus proportional to P0 · v/F} or P0R. Hence the intensity of the field at the surface would ultimately become infinite with increasing radius R of the sphere, which is impossible.]

The universe as a whirlpool is in harmony with both the theory of Newton and the general theory of relativity.

This conception is in itself not very satisfactory. It is still less satisfactory because it leads to the result that the light emitted by the stars and also individual stars of the stellar system are perpetually passing out into infinite space, never to return, and without ever again coming into interaction with other objects of nature. Such a finite material universe would be destined to become gradually but systematically impoverished.

On an infinite scale, light shall not be traveling in a straight line. It has some amount of inertia, so its path shall be curved. It will be part of an infinite whirlpool.

In order to escape this dilemma, Seeliger suggested a modification of Newton’s law, in which he assumes that for great distances the force of attraction between two masses diminishes more rapidly than would result from the inverse square law. In this way it is possible for the mean density of matter to be constant everywhere, even to infinity, without infinitely large gravitational fields being produced. We thus free ourselves from the distasteful conception that the material universe ought to possess something of the nature of centre. Of course we purchase our emancipation from the fundamental difficulties mentioned, at the cost of a modification and complication of Newton’s law which has neither empirical nor theoretical foundation. We can imagine innumerable laws which would serve the same purpose, without our being able to state a reason why one of them is to be preferred to the others; for any one of these laws would be founded just as little on more general theoretical principles as is the law of Newton.

Seeliger’s conception of the situation is not very satisfactory. Therefore, his recommended solution is not very satisfactory either.



Einstein is considering Seeliger’s paradox in this section. He finds Seeliger’s conception of the problem to be unsatisfactory.

Interestingly enough the general relativity provides a solution in terms of the universe being an infinite whirlpool-like field. On an infinite scale, The path of light shall be curved because it has finite amount of inertia. It will form a part of the infinite whirlpool.

Newton’s theory is modified in the sense that the path of light also has infinitesimal curvature.


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