What did Einstein learn in his university electricity and magnetism courses? Did he learn about such prominent results as Ampère's force law, Weber's force law derived from it (cf. Maxwell's Treatise §§846-851), and Helmholtz's theory?

Doing a search through Einstein's collected papers, I could not find him mentioning any of these things. Did he? If not, why?

  • $\begingroup$ Is E&M a standard abbreviation that everybody knows? I don't think I heard it before, maybe because I'm not native English, maybe because I did not study physics. How about renaming to "electricity and magnetism", I think that would help the average reader. $\endgroup$ – Mads Skjern Jun 1 '18 at 17:13

Einstein's physics teacher, H. F. Weber, apparently did not teach him any Helmholtz, as Einstein wrote in a 10 August 1899 letter to Mileva Marić:

I returned the Helmholtz volume* and am at present studying again in depth Hertz's propagation of electric force.** The reason for it was that [I] didn't understand Helmholtz's treatise on the principle of least action in electrodynamics. I am more and more convinced that the electrodynamics of moving bodies, as presented today, is not correct, and that it should be possible to present it in a simpler way. The introduction of the term "ether" into the theories of electricity led to the notion of a medium of whose motion one can speak without being able, I believe, to associate a physical meaning with this statement. I think that the electric forces can be directly defined only for empty space, [which is] also emphasized by Hertz…

Volume 1: The Early Years, 1879-1902 (English translation supplement) Page 131

*Helmholtz's 1882 Wissenschaftliche Abhandlungen (not translated into English)
**Hertz's Electric waves being researches on the propagation of electric action with finite velocity through space

It's surprising Einstein was not formally taught the 19th century's leading way of doing E&M: deriving electric potentials from energetics first principles. This was taught in, e.g., Duhem's 1891-92 Leçons sur l'électricité et le magnétisme course.

Einstein's collected papers nowhere mention the derivation of Wilhelm Weber's law from Ampère's force law, which by the time Einstein was a physics student was at least ⅓ century old. Perhaps 19th century physics instruction lagged behind cutting-edge research developments, much as today the vast majority of what is taught in physics courses were cutting-edge developments at least a century ago. Perhaps this is why Einstein was frustrated and rarely attended class.


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