Gaga for Gravitation

Gravitation proved to be far more than its jumble of equations, nonlinear structure, and famous text-boxes. Though several newer textbooks have displaced the book from graduate students' syllabi, none has rivaled the book's cross-over appeal.
11/23/2015 01:30 pm ET Updated Nov 21, 2016

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 beginning in the mid-1950s. He quickly attracted worldclass graduate students to the subject, including Charles Misner and Kip Thorne. Fifteen years later, concerned that textbooks had failed to keep up with modern developments, Misner, Thorne, and Wheeler teamed up to write Gravitation.

From the start, they treated the textbook as an experiment in the genre. Perhaps inspired by the warping of spacetime--which disrupted many a straightforward path--they plotted an unusual structure for the volume. They divided the book into two tracks: a core of introductory material occupying less than a third of the book, surrounded by extensions, elaborations, and applications. The two tracks were not sequential; many chapters were divided, section by section, into one track or the other.

The authors devoted spectacular attention to the physical appearance and production of the book. Thorne traded detailed letters with the artists and lay-out designers at the publisher, W. H. Freeman in San Francisco, going over everything from thickness of lines to set off supplementary material, to arrow styles and shadings to be adopted in the hundreds of illustrations. Early on, Thorne alerted an editor that the book would require at least six distinct typefaces, perhaps as many as eight, to properly distinguish all the symbols and equations.

Having tackled every detail of composition and typesetting, imagine the authors' surprise when--two years into the process, and just three weeks before they submitted their final manuscript--they learned that the publisher held a rather different conception of the book than they did. The authors thought they had been writing a textbook, and they anticipated an inexpensive, paperback edition to be marketed directly to students. The publisher, it now appeared, considered Gravitation to be a reference volume, and was planning a limited print run of expensive hardbound copies, destined for dusty library shelves. At the eleventh hour, after the authors agreed to a reduced royalty rate, the publisher relented, and in September 1973 Freeman released a paperback edition, aimed at students, priced at $19.95 (about $100 today).

Reviewers immediately recognized something special. "A pedagogic masterpiece," announced a reviewer in Science; "one of the great books of science, a lamp to illuminate this Aladdin's cave of theoretical physics whose genie was Albert Einstein," crowed another in Science Progress. A third reviewer challenged his readers: "Imagine that three highly inventive people get together to invent a scientific book. Not just to write it, but invent the tone, the style, the methods of exposition, the format."

Others raised questions about the looping, nonlinear structure of the book. "This book is difficult to read in a linear, progressive fashion," concluded one reviewer. Another observed: "The variety of gimmicks is bewildering--framed headings with quotations, marginal titles, 'boxes' sometimes extending over several pages, heavy type, light type, large type, small type."

Despite (or because of) the unusual structure, the book quickly caught on. Thorne later noted to the publisher--with fanfare but not much hyperbole--that by the late 1970s, "a large fraction of the physics graduate students in the Western world bought a copy of Gravitation." In fact, the book sold 50,000 copies during its first decade, far outstripping the total pool of physics graduate students at the time.

From the start, readership extended far beyond the classroom. The Washington Post devoted a full-page review to the book when it first appeared. The reviewer, himself a physicist at Williams College, acknowledged that "Perhaps it is strange to review here a textbook full of mathematics, a book, moreover, whose 6.7-pound bulk the young, the old and the infirm can scarcely lift. But," he declared, "those who read like to know what is being published and discussed." He compared the book's looping structure to recent trends in avant-garde filmmaking, such as the French nouvelle vague. "There are very few stories that should be told sequentially," he avowed. All the better that Gravitation, like the fashionable filmmakers, had discovered "strategies for breaking up a linear narrative." (Thorne was later instrumental in crafting the story for Interstellar, last year's blockbuster film in which exotic gravitational phenomena disrupt the smooth flow of time.)

Fan letters reached the authors from a wide assortment of readers. One wrote from a hospital in Italy--it is not clear if he was a patient or a physician--with a string of follow-up questions about the cosmos that had been inspired by the book. He was so desperate for a response that he promised $200 to the authors or their students if they would take the time to answer. "Don't be offended by my proposal. Time = Money," he closed.

An engineer in Brussels turned to the book for a different reason. Before beginning his military service, he picked up Gravitation to improve his English. "My hopes have been completely fulfilled: Gravitation is worth reading to learn English because it makes enjoy Physics!"

Thorne received an especially poignant letter from a reader in Portland, Oregon. "I stumble here, fall down there, and generally make a fool of myself as I wander about your textbook," the correspondent explained, "but I am gaining a sense of balance and a few tools with which to deal with the subject." His dedication was impressive:

When friends ask me about what I am doing I have made the mistake of telling them the truth [about his attempts to read Gravitation]. Sometimes I think they are right, I feel as though I am on the brink of madness. I go out to have a beer and listen to someone talk about his love affairs, the clutch in his pick-up truck, the problems with his children, the plumbing, the bus service. I look at him and see him dealing with all these important issues and I ask myself why do I care if I ever understand the difference between leptons and leprosy?

Gravitation proved to be far more than its jumble of equations, nonlinear structure, and famous text-boxes. Though several newer textbooks have displaced the book from graduate students' syllabi, none has rivaled the book's cross-over appeal. To this day, Misner, Thorne, and Wheeler's book--like Einstein's elegant theory at its core--inspires alluringly large questions. Why are we here? What is our place in the cosmos? Einstein helped to spur those questions a century ago; Gravitation marks a major milestone on the continuing quest.

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Portions of this essay are adopted from David Kaiser, "A Tale of Two Textbooks: Experiments in Genre," Isis 103 (March 2012): 126-138. © 2012 by the History of Science Society.