“At the age of 12 to 16 I familiarized myself with the elements of mathematics together with the principles of differential and integral calculus. In doing so I had the good fortune of finding books which were not too particular in their logical rigor, but which made up for this by permitting the main thoughts to stand out clearly and synoptically... I also had the good fortune of getting to know the essential results and methods of the entire field of the natural sciences in an excellent popular exposition, which limited itself almost throughout to qualitative aspects. …a work which I read with breathless attention.”


Does anybody know what is this book ? Written by who ? Of what subject did it deal with (physics only?) What would be modern day equivalents to it ?


1 Answer 1


From Walter Isaacson's Einstein (page 116 of the linked pdf) :

Einstein’s greatest intellectual stimulation came from a poor student who dined with his family once a week. It was an old Jewish custom to take in a needy religious scholar to share the Sabbath meal; the Einsteins modified the tradition by hosting instead a medical student on Thursdays. His name was Max Talmud, and he began his weekly visits when he was 21 and Einstein was 10. .....Talmud brought Einstein science books, including a popular illustrated series called People’s Books on Natural Science, “a work which I read with breathless attention,” said Einstein. The 21 little volumes were written by Aaron Bernstein, who stressed the interrelations between biology and physics, and reported in great detail the experiments being done at the time, especially in Germany.

In the opening section of the first volume, Bernstein dealt with the speed of light, a topic that obviously fascinated him. Indeed, he returned to it repeatedly in the subsequent volumes, including eleven essays on the topic in volume 8. Judging from the thought experiments Einstein later used in constructing his theory of relativity, Bernstein's books appear to have been influential.

For example, Bernstein asked readers to imagine being on a speeding train. If a bullet is shot through the window, it would seem to have been shot at an angle because the train would have moved between the time the bullet entered one window and exited the other window. ... (and Bernstein continues with additional subject matter familiar to the Einsteinian way of thinking)

Talmud also provided non-popular reading material to the young Einstein :

Talmud also helped Einstein explore the wonders of mathematics by giving him a textbook on geometry two years before he was scheduled to learn that subject in school. When Talmud arrived each Thursday, Einstein delighted in showing him the problems he had solved that week. Initially, Talmud was able to help him, but he was soon surpassed by his pupil. “After a short time, a few months, he had worked through the whole book,” Talmud recalled. “Soon the flight of his mathematical genius was so high that I could no longer follow.”

but this is outside the scope of your question.

EDIT Note that Isaacson, or the translator, misnames the series as "People's Books on Natural Science". The correct name is "Popular Books on Natural Science. For practical use in every household, for readers of all classes". Here is a link to a PDF. Click on the text to turn the page.

  • $\begingroup$ Very interesting, I'll have to check those out. $\endgroup$
    – Conifold
    Commented Sep 29, 2016 at 1:35
  • $\begingroup$ @Conifold Yes, I thought it was rather interesting as well. I've edited my answer to add a link to a PDF of Bernstein's work, if you have not already located one. Also note that the Isaacson text appears to have misnamed the series. $\endgroup$
    – nwr
    Commented Sep 29, 2016 at 2:16
  • $\begingroup$ Interesting, thanks. What would be some equivalent to this in the English language? Just by curiosity. $\endgroup$
    – copper
    Commented Sep 29, 2016 at 3:25
  • $\begingroup$ @copper The link in the EDIT at the bottom of my answer takes you to an English translation of Bernstein's work. Just click on it to turn the page - you'll probably need to use your browser's zoom function as well. I'll have a look around to see if I can locate any similar works by English speaking authors. If I find anything I'll let your know. $\endgroup$
    – nwr
    Commented Sep 29, 2016 at 4:05
  • $\begingroup$ Bernstein's thoughts on space and time were inspired by another German author, Felix Eberty, who published this volume anonymously in 1846. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 17, 2017 at 17:22

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