100 GTR: Uniformly Rotating Disk and the Hole Argument

The “Ehrenfest paradox“: Ehrenfest imagined a rigid cylinder set in motion from rest and rotating around its axis of symmetry. Consider an observer at rest measuring the circumference and radius of the rotating cylinder. The observer arrives at two contradictory requirements relating to the cylinder’s radius:

  1. Every point in the circumference of the cylinder moves with radial velocity ωR, and thus, the circumference of the cylinder  should appear Lorentz contracted to a smaller value than at rest, by the usual “relativistic” factor γ: 2πR‘ < 2πR.
  2. The radius R’ is always perpendicular to its motion and suffers no contraction at all; it should therefore be equal to its value R: R’ = R.

Einstein wrote to Vladimir Varićak either in 1909 or in 1910 (Febuary 28): “The rotation of the rigid body is the most interesting problem currently provided by the theory of relativity, because the only thing that causes the contradiction is the Lorentz contraction”.  CPAE 5, Doc. 197b.

Ehrenfest imagined a rigid cylinder gradually set into rotation (from rest) around its axis until it reaches a state of constant rotation.

In 1919 Einstein explained why this was impossible: (CPAE 9, Doc. 93)

“One must take into account that a rigid circular disk at rest would have to snap when set into rotation, because of the Lorentz shortening of the tangential fibers and the non-shortening of the radial ones. Similarly, a rigid disk in rotation (made by casting) would have to shatter as a result of the inverse changes in length if one attempts to bring it to the state of rest. If you take these facts fully into consideration, your paradox disappears”.

Assuming that the cylinder does not expand or contract, its radius stays the same. But measuring rods laid out along the circumference 2πR should be Lorentz-contracted to a smaller value than at rest, by the usual factor γ. This leads to the paradox that the rigid measuring rods would have to separate from one another due to Lorentz contraction; the discrepancy noted by Ehrenfest seems to suggest that a rotated Born rigid disk should shatter. According to special relativity an object cannot be spun up from a non-rotating state while maintaining Born rigidity, but once it has achieved a constant nonzero angular velocity it does maintain Born rigidity without violating special relativity, and then (as Einstein showed in 1912) a disk riding observer will measure a circumference.

Hence, in 1912, Einstein discussed what came to be known as the uniformly rotating disk thought experiment in general relativity. Thinking about Ehrenfest’s paradox and taking into consideration the principle of equivalence, Einstein considered a disk (already) in a state of uniform rotation observed from an inertial system.

We take a great number of small measuring rods (all equal to each other) and place them end-to-end across the diameter 2R and circumference 2πR of the uniformly rotating disk. From the point of view of a system at rest all the measuring rods on the circumference are subject to the Lorentz contraction. Since measuring rods aligned along the periphery and moving with it should appear contracted, more would fit around the circumference, which would thus measure greater than 2πR. An observer in the system at rest concludes that in the uniformly rotating disk the ratio of the circumference to the diameter is different from π:

circumference/diameter = 2π(Lorentz contracted by a factor…)/2R = π (Lorentz contracted by a factor….).

According to the equivalence principle the disk system is equivalent to a system at rest in which there exists a certain kind of static gravitational field. Einstein thus arrived at the conclusion that a system in a static gravitational field has non-Euclidean geometry.

Soon afterwards, from 1912 onwards, Einstein adopted the metric tensor as the mathematical respresentation of gravitation.

Indeed Einstein’s first mention of the rotating disk in print was in his paper dealing with the static gravitational fields of 1912; and after the 1912 paper, the rotating-disk thought experiment occurred in Einstein’s writings only in a 1916 review article on general relativity: “The Foundation of the General Theory of Relativity”.

He now understood that in the general theory of relativity the method of laying coordinates in the space-time continuum (in a definite manner) breaks down, and one cannot adapt coordinate systems to the four-dimensional space.


My new paper deals with Einstein’s 1912 and 1916 rotating disk problem, Einstein’s hole argument, the 1916 point coincidence argument and Mach’s principle; a combined-into-one deal (academic paper) for the readers of this blog.


Sitting: Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington and Hendrik Antoon Lorentz. Standing: Albert Einstein, Paul Ehrenfest and Willem de Sitter. September 26, 1923.

Further reading: Ehrenfest paradox


My new paper on Einstein and Schwarzschild

My new paper on General Relativity: Einstein and Schwarzschild.

Sometime in October 1915 Einstein dropped the Einstein-Grossman theory. Starting on November 4, 1915, Einstein gradually expanded the range of the covariance of his field equations. On November 11, 1915 Einstein was able to write the field equations of gravitation in a general covariant form, but there was a coordinate condition (there are no equations here so I cannot write it down here).

On November 18, 1915, Einstein presented to the Prussian Academy his paper, “Explanation of the Perihelion Motion of Mercury from the General Theory of Relativity”. Einstein reported in this talk that the perihelion motion of Mercury is explained by his theory. In this paper, Einstein tried to find approximate solutions to his November 11, 1915 field equations. He intended to obtain a solution, without considering the question whether or not the solution was the only possible unique solution.

Einstein’s field equations are non-linear partial differential equations of the second rank. This complicated system of equations cannot be solved in the general case, but can be solved in particular simple situations. The first to offer an exact solution to Einstein’s November 18, 1915 field equations was Karl Schwarzschild, the director of the Astrophysical Observatory in Potsdam. On December 22, 1915 Schwarzschild wrote Einstein from the Russian front. Schwarzschild set out to rework Einstein’s calculation in his November 18 1915 paper of the Mercury perihelion problem. He first responded to Einstein’s solution for the first order approximation from his November 18, 1915 paper, and found another first-order approximate solution. Schwarzschild told Einstein that the problem would be then physically undetermined if there were a few approximate solutions. Subsequently, Schwarzschild presented a complete solution. He said he realized that there was only one line element, which satisfied the conditions imposed by Einstein on the gravitational field of the sun, as well as Einstein’s field equations from the November 18 1915 paper.

“Raffiniert ist der Herrgott, aber boshaft ist er nicht” (Einstein might have already said….), because the problem with Schwarzschild’s line element was that a mathematical singularity was seen to occur at the origin! Oh my, Einstein abhorred singularities.

Actually, Schwarzschild “committed another crime”: he did not satisfy the coordinate condition from Einstein’s November 11 or November 18, 1915 paper. Schwarzschild admitted that his coordinates were not “allowed” coordinates, with which the field equations could be formed, because these spherical coordinates did not have determinant 1. Schwarzschild chose then the non-“allowed” coordinates, and in addition, a mathematical singularity was seen to occur in his solution. But Schwarzschild told Einstein: Don’t worry, “The equation of [Mercury’s] orbit remains exactly as you obtained in the first approximation”! See my paper from 2012.

Einstein replied to Schwarzschild on December 29, 1915 and told him that his calculation proving uniqueness proof for the problem is very interesting. “I hope you publish the idea soon! I would not have thought that the strict treatment of the point- problem was so simple”. Subsequently Schwarzschild sent Einstein a manuscript, in which he derived his solution of Einstein’s November 18, 1915 field equations for the field of a single mass. Einstein received the manuscript by the beginning of January 1916, and he examined it “with great interest”. He told Schwarzschild that he “did not expect that one could formulate so easily the rigorous solution to the problem”. On January 13, 1916, Einstein delivered Schwarzschild’s paper before the Prussian Academy with a few words of explanation. Schwarzschild’s paper, “On the Gravitational Field of a Point-Mass according to Einstein’s Theory” was published a month later.


Karl Schwarzschild

In March 1916 Einstein submitted to the Annalen der Physik a review article on the general theory of relativity, “The Foundation of the General Theory of Relativity”. The paper was published two months later, in May 1916. The 1916 review article was written after Schwarzschild had found the complete exact solution to Einstein’s November 18, 1915 field equations. Even so, in his 1916 paper, Einstein preferred NOT to base himself on Schwarzschild’s exact solution, and he returned to his first order approximate solution from his November 18, 1915 paper.

A comment regarding Einstein’s calculations in his November 18, 1915 paper of the Mercury perihelion problem and Einstein’s 1916 paper. In his early works on GTR, in order to obtain the Newtonian results, Einstein used the special relativistic limit and the weak field approximation, and assumed that space was flat (see my paper). Already in 1914 Einstein had reasoned that in the general case, the gravitational field was characterized by ten space-time functions of the metric tensor. g were functions of the coordinates. In the case of special relativity this reduces to g44 = c2, where c denotes a constant. Einstein took for granted that the same degeneration occurs in the static gravitational field, except that in the latter case, this reduces to a single potential, where g44 = c2 is a function of spatial coordinates, x1, x2, x3. 

Later that year David Hilbert (with a vengeance from 1915?…) arrived at a line-element similar to Schwarzschild’s one, and he concluded that the singularity disappears only if we accept a world without electricity. Such an empty space was inacceptable by Einstein who was apparently much attracted by Mach’s ideas! (later termed by Einstein “Mach’s Principle”). Okay, Einstein, said Hilbert: If there is matter then another singularity exists, or as Hilbert puts it: “there are places where the metric proves to be irregular”…. (See my paper from 2012).








Strange Days at Blake Holsey High: a student is sucked into the black hole…


The centenary of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity

Einstein’s first big project on Gravitation in Berlin was to complete by October 1914 a summarizing long review article of his Einstein-Grossmann theory. The paper was published in November 1914. This version of the theory was an organized and extended version of his works with Marcel Grossmann, the most fully and comprehensive theory of gravitation; a masterpiece of what would finally be discovered as faulty field equations.


On November 4, 1915 Einstein wrote his elder son Hans Albert Einstein, “In the last days I completed one of the finest papers of my life; when you are older I’ll tell you about it”. The day this letter was written Einstein presented this paper to the Prussian Academy of Sciences. The paper was the first out of four papers that corrected his November 1914 review paper. Einstein’s work on this paper was so intense during October 1915 that he told Hans Albert in the same letter, “I am often so in my work, that I forget lunch”.


In the first November 4 1915 paper, Einstein gradually expanded the range of the covariance of his field equations. Every week he expanded the covariance a little further until he arrived on November 25 1915 to fully generally covariant field equations. Einstein’s explained to Moritz Schlick that, through the general covariance of the field equations, “time and space lose the last remnant of physical reality. All that remains is that the world is to be conceived as a four-dimensional (hyperbolic) continuum of four dimensions” (Einstein to Schlick, December 14, 1915, CPAE 8, Doc 165) John Stachel explains the meaning of this revolution in space and time, in his book: Stachel, John, Einstein from ‘B’ to ‘Z’, 2002; see p. 323).

Albert Einstein as a Young Man

These are a few of my papers on Einstein’s pathway to General Relativity:












Stay tuned for my next centenary of GTR post!

Einstein’s pathway to his General Theory of Relativity

Einstein thought that when dealing with gravity high velocities are not so important. So in 1912 he thought about gravity in terms of the principle of relativity and not in terms of the constant-speed-of-light postulate (special relativity). But then he engaged in a dispute with other scholars who claimed that he gave up the central postulate of his special theory of relativity. x

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Max Abraham

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Gunnar Nordström

Einstein’s Pathway to his Equivalence Principle 1905-1907


1912 – 1913 Static Gravitational Field Theory


1913 – 1914 “Entwurf” theory


Berlin “Entwurf” theory 1914


The Einstein-Nordström Theory


Dawn of “Entwarf theory”


1915 Relativity Theory


1916 General Theory of Relativity


Einstein’s Pathway to the Special Theory of Relativity and the General Theory of Relativity

Einstein’s Pathway to the Special Theory of Relativity

Einstein’s Pathway to the Special Theory of Relativity

Einstein’s discovery of Special Relativity

Einstein Believes in the Ether

Einstein Chases a Light Beam

Einstein recounts the Aarau thought experiment in his Autobiographical Notes, 1949

Magnet and Conductor Thought Experiment, Faraday’s magneto-electric induction

Föppl’s book on Maxwell’s theory

Ether drift and Michelson and Morley’s experiment

The Role of the Michelson-Morley Experiment on the Discovery of Relativity

The Dayton Miller Experiments

Emission theory and ether drift experiments

Paul Ehrenfest and Walter Ritz. Ritz’s Emission Theory

“The Step”

Einstein defined distant simultaneity physically; relativity of simultaneity

The Kyoto lecture notes – Einstein could have visited and consulted his close friend Michele Besso, whom he thanked at the end of his relativity paper. The Patent Office brought them together – their conversations on the way home. Besso was always eager to discuss the subjects of which he knew a great deal – sociology, medicine, mathematics, physics and philosophy – Einstein initiated him into his discovery

Joseph Sauter – Before any other theoretical consideration, Einstein pointed out the necessity of a new definition of synchronization of two identical clocks distant from one another; to fix these ideas, he told him, “suppose one of the clocks is on a tower at Bern and the other on a tower at Muri (the ancient aristocratic annex of Bern)” – synchronization of clocks by light signals.

Did Poincaré have an Effect on Einstein’s Pathway toward the Special Theory of Relativity? Einstein’s reply to Carl Seelig


Einstein’s pathway to the General Theory of Relativity

Entwurf theory – Einstein-Grossmann theory, Hole argument, field equations and the Einstein-Besso manuscript


Gunnar Nordström develops a competing theory of gravitation to Einstein’s 1912-1913 gravitation theory. Einstein begins to study Nordström’s theory and develops his own Einstein-Nordström theory. In a joint 1914 paper with Lorentz’s student Adrian Fokker – a generally covariant formalism is presented from which Nordström’s theory follows if the velocity of light is constant Here


The three problems that led to the fall of the entwurf theory –

The gravitational field on a uniformly rotating system does not satisfy the field equations.

Covariance with respect to adapted coordinate system was a flop.

In the Entwurf theory the motion of Mercury’s perihelion came to 180 rather than 450 per century

The General Theory of Relativity – 1915

David Hilbert Enters the Game, the priority dispute – Einstein and Hilbert

In November 18 1915 Einstein calculated rapidly the precession of Mercury’s


Geodesic Equation. Metric tensor. Einstein’s November 4, 11, and 25 field equations.The Riemann-Christoffel Tensor; the Ricci tensor; the Einstein tensor

von Deinem zufriedenen aber ziemlich kaputen

General Theory of Relativity – 1916

Mid December to Mid January 1915: Exchange of letters between Einstein and Ehrenfest

The disk thought experiment; coordinates have no direct physical meaning Euclidean Geometry breaks down; two Globes Thought Experiment; Mach’s Principle; the principle of general relativity; the Equivalence Principle; the principle of general covariance

The Summation Convention

Motion of the Perihelion of the Planetary Orbit; Redshift; Deflection of light in a gravitational field of the sun

Einstein in the Patent Office:

Michele Besso, Joseph Sauter, and Lucian Chavan – Patent Office, Maurice Solovine and Conrad Habicht – the Olympian Academy

Annus mirabilis papers

On a Heuristic Viewpoint Concerning the Generation and Transformation of Light – It argues a heuristic manner for the existence of light quanta and derives the photoelectric law

On a New Determination of Molecular Dimensions – doctoral thesis submitted to the mathematical and natural science branch of Zürich University

On the Movement of Particles Suspended in Fluids at Rest, as Postulated by the Molecular Theory of Heat. The Brownian motion paper

On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies. The Relativity Paper

Does the Inertia of a Body Depend on its Energy Content? The first derivation of the mass energy equivalence

German Scientists Responded to Einstein’s Relativity Paper – Max Planck wrote Einstein. Max von Laue met Einstein

Einstein teaches his 3 friends from the Patent Office at the University of Bern

Finally Einstein leaves the Patent Office to his first post in the University of Zürich

Further reading: Stachel, John, Einstein from ‘B’ to ‘Z’, 2002, Washington D.C.: Birkhauser