Albert Einstein | Geometry and Experience

Publicat deMadalina Marcu

address by Albert Einstein (1921), expanded
(Prussian Academy of Sciences, Jan 27th)


hexagonal disk-packing projection of a finite spherical space onto an
infinite linear space

ONE reason why mathematics enjoys special esteem, above all other
sciences, is that its laws are absolutely certain and indisputable,
while those of all other sciences are to some extent debatable and in
constant danger of being overthrown by newly discovered facts. In
spite of this, the investigator in another department of science would
not need to envy the mathematician if the laws of mathematics referred to objects of our mere imagination, and not to objects of reality. For it cannot occasion surprise that different persons should arrive at the same logical conclusions when they have already agreed upon the fundamental laws (axioms), as well as the methods by which other laws are to be deduced therefrom. But there is another reason for the high repute of mathematics, in that it is mathematics which affords the exact natural sciences a certain measure of security, to which without mathematics they could not attain.

At this point an enigma presents itself which in all ages has agitated
inquiring minds. How can it be that mathematics, being after all a
product of human thought which is independent of experience, is so
admirably appropriate to the objects of reality? Is human reason,
then, without experience, merely by taking thought, able to fathom the properties of real things.

In my opinion the answer to this question is, briefly, this: – As far
as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and
as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality. It seems to
me that complete clearness as to this state of things first became
common property through that new departure in mathematics which is
known by the name of mathematical logic or “Axiomatics.”
The progress achieved by axiomatics consists in its having neatly
separated the logical-formal from its objective or intuitive content;
according to axiomatics the logical-formal alone forms the subject-matter of mathematics, which is not concerned with the intuitive or other content associated with the logical-formal.

Let us for a moment consider from this point of view any axiom of
geometry, for instance, the following: – Through two points in space
there always passes one and only one straight line. How is this axiom
to be interpreted in the older sense and in the more modern sense?

The older interpretation: – Every one knows what a straight line is,
and what a point is. Whether this knowledge springs from an ability of the human mind or from experience, from some collaboration of the two or from some other source, is not for the mathematician to decide. He leaves the question to the philosopher. Being based upon this knowledge which precedes all mathematics, the axiom stated above is, like all other axioms, self-evident, that is, it is the expression of a part of this a priori knowledge.

The more modern interpretation: – Geometry treats of entities which
are denoted by the words straight line, point, etc. These entities do
not take for granted any knowledge or intuition whatever, but they
presuppose only the validity of the axioms , such as the one stated
above, which are to be taken in a purely formal sense, i.e. as void of
all content of intuition or experience. These axioms are free creations of the human mind. All other propositions of geometry are
logical inferences from the axioms (which are to be taken in the
nominalistic sense only). The matter of which geometry treats is first
defined by the axioms. Schlick in his book on epistemology has
therefore characterised axioms very aptly as “implicit definitions.”

This view of axioms, advocated by modern axiomatics, purges
mathematics of all extraneous elements, and thus dispels the mystic
obscurity which formerly surrounded the principles of mathematics. But a presentation of its principles thus clarified makes it also evident that mathematics as such cannot predicate anything about perceptual objects or real objects. In axiomatic geometry the words “point,”
“straight line,” etc., stand only for empty conceptual schemata. That
which gives them substance is not relevant to mathematics.

Yet on the other hand it is certain that mathematics generally, and
particularly geometry, owes its existence to the need which was felt
of learning something about the relations of real things to one
another. The very word geometry, which, of course, means
earth-measuring, proves this. For earth-measuring has to do with the
possibilities of the disposition of certain natural objects with
respect to one another namely, with parts of the earth,
measuring-lines, measuring-wands, etc. It is clear that the system of
concepts of axiomatic geometry alone cannot make any assertions as to
the relations of real objects of this kind, which we will call
practically-rigid bodies. To be able to make such assertions, geometry
must be stripped of its merely logical-formal character by the
co-ordination of real objects of experience with the empty conceptual
frame-work of axiomatic geometry. To accomplish this, we need only add
the proposition: – Solid bodies are related, with respect to their
possible dispositions, as are bodies in Euclidean geometry of three
dimensions. Then the propositions of Euclid contain affirmations as to
the relations of practically-rigid bodies.

Geometry thus completed is evidently a natural science; we may in fact
regard it as the most ancient branch of physics. Its affirmations rest
essentially on induction from experience, but not on logical
inferences only. We will call this completed geometry “practical
geometry,” and shall distinguish it in what follows from “purely
axiomatic geometry.” The question whether the practical geometry of
the universe is Euclidean or not has a clear meaning, and its answer
can only be furnished by experience. All linear measurement in physics
is practical geometry in this sense, so too is geodetic and
astronomical linear measurement, if we call to our help the law of
experience that light is propagated in a straight line, and indeed in
a straight line in the sense of practical geometry.

I attach special importance to the view of geometry which I have just
set forth, because without it I should have been unable to formulate
the theory of relativity. Without it the following reflection would
have been impossible: – In a system of reference rotating relatively
to an inert system, the laws of disposition of rigid bodies do not
correspond to the rules of Euclidean geometry on account of the
Lorentz contraction; thus if we admit non-inert systems we must
abandon Euclidean geometry. The decisive step in the transition to
general co-variant equations would certainly not have been taken if
the above interpretation had not served as a stepping-stone. If we
deny the relation between the body of axiomatic Euclidean geometry and
the practically-rigid body of reality, we readily arrive at the
following view, which was entertained by that acute and profound
thinker, H. Poincaré: – Euclidean geometry is distinguished above all
other imaginable axiomatic geometries by its simplicity.
Now since axiomatic geometry by itself contains no assertions as to
the reality which can be experienced, but can do so only in
combination with physical laws, it should be possible and reasonable –
whatever may be the nature of reality – to retain Euclidean geometry.
For if contradictions between theory and experience manifest
themselves, we should rather decide to change physical laws than to
change axiomatic Euclidean geometry. If we deny the relation between
the practically-rigid body and geometry, we shall indeed not easily
free ourselves from the convention that Euclidean geometry is to be
retained as the simplest. Why is the equivalence of the
practically-rigid body and the body of geometry – which suggests
itself so readily – denied by Poincaré and other investigators? Simply
because under closer inspection the real solid bodies in nature are
not rigid, because their geometrical behaviour, that is, their
possibilities of relative disposition, depend upon temperature,
external forces, etc. Thus the original, immediate relation between
geometry and physical reality appears destroyed, and we feel impelled
toward the following more general view, which characterizes Poincaré’s
Geometry (G) predicates nothing about the relations of real things,
but only geometry together with the purport (P) of physical laws can
do so. Using symbols, we may say that only the sum of (G) + (P) is
subject to the control of experience. Thus (G) may be chosen
arbitrarily, and also parts of (P); all these laws are conventions.
All that is necessary to avoid contradictions is to choose the
remainder of (P) so that (G) and the whole of (P) are together in
accord with experience.
Envisaged in this way, axiomatic geometry and the part of natural law
which has been given a conventional status appear as epistemologically

Sub specie aeterni Poincaré in my opinion, is right. The idea of the
measuring-rod and the idea of the clock co-ordinated with it in the
theory of relativity do not find their exact correspondence in the
real world. It is also clear that the solid body and the clock do not
in the conceptual edifice of physics play the part of irreducible
elements, but that of composite structures, which may not play any
independent part in theoretical physics. But it is my conviction that
in the present stage of development of theoretical physics these ideas
must still be employed as independent ideas; for we are still far from
possessing such certain knowledge of theoretical principles as to be
able to give exact theoretical constructions of solid bodies and

Further, as to the objection that there are no really rigid bodies in
nature, and that therefore the properties predicated of rigid bodies
do not apply to physical reality, – this objection is by no means so
radical as might appear from a hasty examination. For it is not a
difficult task to determine the physical state of a measuring-rod so
accurately that its behaviour relatively to other measuring-bodies
shall be sufficiently free from ambiguity to allow it to be
substituted for the “rigid” body.
It is to measuring-bodies of this kind that statements as to rigid
bodies must be referred.

All practical geometry is based upon a principle which is accessible
to experience, and which we will now try to realise. We will call that
which is enclosed between two boundaries, marked upon a
practically-rigid body, a tract. We imagine two practically-rigid
bodies, each with a tract marked out on it. These two tracts are said
to be “equal to one another” if the boundaries of the one tract can be
brought to coincide permanently with the boundaries of the other. We
now assume that:

If two tracts are found to be equal once and anywhere, they are equal
always and everywhere.

Not only the practical geometry of Euclid, but also its nearest
generalisation, the practical geometry of Riemann, and therewith the
general theory of relativity, rest upon this assumption. Of the
experimental reasons which warrant this assumption I will mention only
one. The phenomenon of the propagation of light in empty space assigns
a tract, namely, the appropriate path of light, to each interval of
local time, and conversely.
Thence it follows that the above assumption for tracts must also hold
good for intervals of clock-time in the theory of relativity.
Consequently it may be formulated as follows: – If two ideal clocks
are going at the same rate at any time and at any place (being then in
immediate proximity to each other), they will always go at the same
rate, no matter where and when they again compared with each other at
one place. – If this law were not valid for real clocks, the proper
frequencies for the separate atoms of the same chemical element would
not be in such exact agreement as experience demonstrates. The
existence of sharp spectral lines is a convincing experimental proof
of the above-mentioned principle of practical geometry. This is the
ultimate foundation in fact which enables us to speak with of the
mensuration, in Riemann’s sense of the word, of the four-dimensional
continuum of space-time.

The question whether the structure of this continuum is Euclidean, or
in accordance with Riemann’s general scheme, or otherwise, is,
according to the view which is here being advocated, properly speaking
a physical question which must: be answered by experience, and not a
question of a mere convention to be selected on practical grounds.
Riemann’s geometry will be the right thing if the laws of disposition
of practically-rigid bodies are transformable into those of the bodies
of Euclid’s geometry with an exactitude which increases in proportion
as the dimensions of the part of space-time under consideration are

It is true that this proposed physical interpretation of geometry
breaks down when applied immediately to spaces of sub-molecular order
of magnitude. But nevertheless, even in questions as to the
constitution of elementary particles, it retains part of its
importance. For even when it is a question of describing the
electrical elementary particles constituting matter, the attempt may
still be made to ascribe physical importance to those ideas of fields
which have been physically defined for the purpose of describing the
geometrical behaviour of bodies which are large as compared with the
molecule . Success alone can decide as to the justification of such an
attempt, which postulates physical reality for the fundamental
principles of Riemann’s geometry outside of the domain of their
physical definitions. It might possibly turn out that this
extrapolation has no better warrant than the extrapolation of the idea
of temperature to parts of a body of molecular order of magnitude.

It appears less problematical to extend the ideas of practical
geometry to spaces of cosmic order of magnitude. It might, of course,
be objected that a construction composed of solid rods departs more
and more from ideal rigidity in proportion as its spatial extent
becomes greater.
But it will hardly be possible, I think, to assign fundamental
significance to this objection. Therefore the question whether the
universe is spatially finite or not seems to me decidedly a pregnant
question in the sense of practical geometry.
I do not even consider it impossible that this question will be
answered before long by astronomy. Let us call to mind what the
general theory of relativity teaches in this respect. It offers two
possibilities: –
1. The universe is spatially infinite. This can be so only if the
average spatial density of the matter in universal space,
concentrated in the stars, vanishes, i.e. if the ratio of the
total mass of the stars to the magnitude of the space through
which they are scattered approximates indefinitely to the value
zero when the spaces taken into consideration are constantly
greater and greater.
2. The universe is spatially finite. This must be so, if there is a
mean density of the ponderable matter in universal space differing
from zero. The smaller that mean density, the greater is the
volume of universal space.

I must not fail to mention that a theoretical argument can be adduced
in favour of the hypothesis of a finite universe.
The general theory of relativity teaches that the inertia of a given
body is greater as there are more ponderable masses in proximity to
it; thus it seems very natural to reduce the total effect of inertia
of a body to action and reaction between it and the other bodies in
the universe, as indeed, ever since Newton’s time, gravity has been
completely reduced to action and reaction between bodies. From the
equations of the general theory of relativity it can be deduced that
this total reduction of inertia to reprocial action between masses –
as required by E.Mach, for example – is possible only if the universe
is spatially finite.

On many physicists and astronomers this argument makes no impression.
Experience alone can finally decide which of the two possibilities is
realised in nature. How can experience furnish an answer? At first it
might seem possible to determine the mean density of matter by
observation of that part of the universe which is accessible to our
This hope is illusory. The distribution of the visible stars is
extremely irregular, so that we on no account may venture to set down
the mean density of star-matter in the universe as equal, let us say,
to the mean density in the Milky Way. In any case, however great the
space examined may be, we could not feel convinced that there were no
more stars beyond that space. So it seems impossible to estimate the
mean density

But there is another road, which seems to me more practicable,
although it also presents great difficulties. For if we inquire into
the deviations shown by the consequences of the general theory of
relativity which are accessible to experience, when these are compared
with the consequences of the Newtonian theory, we first of all find a
deviation which shows itself in close proximity to gravitating mass,
and has been confirmed in the case of the planet Mercury. But if the
universe is spatially finite there is a second deviation from the
Newtonian theory, which, in the language of the Newtonian theory, may
be expressed thus: – The gravitational field is in its nature such as
if it were produced, not only by the ponderable masses, but also by a
mass-density of negative sign, distributed uniformly throughout space.
Since this factitious mass-density would have to be enormously small,
it could make its presence felt only in gravitating systems of very
great extent.

Assuming that we know, let us say, the statistical distribution of the
stars in the Milky Way, as well as their masses, then by Newton’s law
we can calculate the gravitational field and the mean velocities which
the stars must have, so that the Milky Way should not collapse under
the mutual attraction of its stars, but should maintain its actual
Now if the actual velocities of the stars, which can, of course, be
measured, were smaller than the calculated velocities, we should have
a proof that the actual attractions at great distances are smaller
than by Newton’s law. From such a deviation it could be proved
indirectly that the universe is finite. It would even be possible to
estimate its spatial magnitude.

Can we picture to ourselves a three-dimensional universe which is
finite, yet unbounded?

The usual answer to this question is “No,” but that is not the right
The purpose of the following remarks is to show that the answer should
be “Yes.” I want to show that without any extraordinary difficulty we
call illustrate the theory of a finite universe by means of a mental
image to which, with some practice, we shall soon grow accustomed.

First of all, an observation of epistemological nature. A
geometrical-physical theory as such is incapable of being directly
pictured, being merely a system of concepts.
But these concepts serve the purpose of bringing a multiplicity of
real or imaginary sensory experiences into connection in the mind
“visualise” a theory or bring it home to one’s mind, therefore means
to give a representation to that abundance of experiences for which
the theory supplies the schematic arrangement. In the present case we
have to ask ourselves how we can represent that relation of solid
bodies with respect to their reciprocal disposition (contact) which
corresponds to the theory of a finite universe. There is really
nothing new in what I have to say about this; but innumerable
questions addressed to me prove that the requirements of those who
thirst for knowledge of these matters have not yet been completely
So, will the initiated please pardon me, if part of what I shall bring
forward has long been known?

What do we wish to express when we say that our space is infinite?
Nothing more than that we might lay any number whatever of bodies of
equal sizes side by side without ever filling space. Suppose that we
are provided with a great many wooden cubes all of the same size. In
accordance with Euclidean geometry we can place them above, beside,
and behind one another so as to fill a part of space of any
dimensions; but this construction would never be finished; we could go
on adding more and more cubes without ever finding that there was no
more room.
That is what we wish to express when we say that space is infinite. It
would be better to say that space is infinite in relation to
practically-rigid bodies, assuming that the laws of disposition for
these bodies are given by Euclidean geometry.

Another example of an infinite continuum is the plane. On a plane
surface we may lay squares of cardboard so that each side of any
square has the side of another square adjacent to it. The construction
is never finished; we can always go on laying squares – if their laws
of disposition correspond to those of plane figures of Euclidean
geometry. The plane is therefore infinite in relation to the cardboard
squares. Accordingly we say that the plane is an infinite continuum of
two dimensions, and space an infinite continuum of three dimensions.
What is here meant by the number of dimensions, I think I may assume
to be known.

Now we take an example of a two-dimensional continuum which is finite,
but unbounded. We imagine the surface of a large globe and a quantity
of small paper discs, all of the same size. We place one of the discs
anywhere on the surface of the globe. If we move the disc about,
anywhere we like, on the surface of the globe, we do not come upon a
limit or boundary anywhere on the journey.
Therefore we say that the spherical surface of the globe is an
unbounded continuum.
Moreover, the spherical surface is a finite continuum. For if we stick
the paper discs on the globe, so that no disc overlaps another, the
surface of the globe will finally become so full that there is no room
for another disc. This simply means that the spherical surface of the
globe is finite in relation to the paper discs. Further, the spherical
surface is a non-Euclidean continuum of two dimensions, that is to
say, the laws of disposition for the rigid figures lying in it do not
agree with those of the Euclidean plane.
This can be shown in the following way. Place a paper disc on the
spherical surface, and around it in a circle place six more discs,
each of which is to be surrounded in turn by six discs, and so on. If
this construction is made on a plane surface, we have an uninterrupted
disposition in which there are six discs touching every disc except
those which lie on the outside.

hexagonal disk-packing

On the spherical surface the construction also seems to promise
success at the outset, and the smaller the radius of the disc in
proportion to that of the sphere, the more promising it seems. But as
the construction progresses it becomes more and more patent that the
disposition of the discs in the manner indicated, without
interruption, is not possible, as it should be possible by Euclidean
geometry of the plane surface. In this way creatures which cannot
leave the spherical surface, and cannot even peep out from the
spherical surface into three-dimensional space, might discover, merely
by experimenting with discs, that their two-dimensional “space” is not
Euclidean, but spherical space.

From the latest results of the theory of relativity it is probable
that our three-dimensional space is also approximately spherical, that
is, that the laws of disposition of rigid bodies in it are not given
by Euclidean geometry, but approximately by spherical geometry, if
only we consider parts of space which are sufficiently great.
Now this is the place where the reader’s imagination boggles. “Nobody
can imagine this thing” he cries indignantly. “It can be said, but
cannot be thought. I can represent to myself a spherical surface well
enough, but nothing analogous to it in three dimensions.”

We must try to surmount this barrier in the mind, and the patient
reader will see that it is by no means a particularly difficult task.
For this purpose we will first give our attention once more to the
geometry of two-dimensional spherical surfaces. In the adjoining
figure let K be the spherical surface, touched at S by a plane, E,
which, for facility of presentation, is shown in the drawing as a
bounded surface. Let L be a disc on the spherical surface. Now let us
imagine that at the point N of the spherical surface, diametrically
opposite to S, there is a luminous point, throwing a shadow L’ of the
disc L upon the plane E. Every point on the sphere has its shadow on
the plane. If the disc on the sphere K is moved, its shadow L’ on the
plane E also moves. When the disc L is at S it almost exactly
coincides with its shadow. If it moves on the spherical surface away
from S upwards, the disc shadow L’ on the plane also moves away from S
on the plane outwards, growing bigger and bigger. As the disc L
approaches the luminous point N the shadow moves off to infinity, and
becomes infinitely great.

projection of a finite spherical space onto an infinite linear space

Now we put the question, What are the laws of disposition of the
disc-shadows L’ on the plane E? Evidently they are exactly the same as
the laws of disposition of the discs L on the spherical surface. For
to each original figure on K there is a corresponding shadow figure on
E. If two discs on K are touching, their shadows on E also touch. The
shadow-geometry on the plane agrees with the disc-geometry on the
sphere. If we call the disc-shadows rigid figures, then spherical
geometry holds good on the plane E with respect to these rigid
figures. Moreover, the plane is finite with respect to the
disc-shadows, since only a finite number of the shadows can find room
on the plane.

At this point somebody will say, “That is nonsense. The disc-shadows
are not rigid figures. We have only to move a two-foot rule about on
the plane E to convince ourselves that the shadows constantly increase
in size as they move away from S on the plane towards infinity.” But
what if the two-foot rule were to behave on the plane E in the same
way as the disc-shadows L’? It would then be impossible to show that
the shadows increase in size as they move away from S; such an
assertion would then no longer have any meaning whatever. In fact the
only objective assertion that can be made about the disc-shadows is
just this, that they are related in exactly the same way as are the
rigid discs on the spherical surface in the sense of Euclidean

We must carefully bear in mind that our statement as to the growth of
the disc-shadows, as they move away from S towards infinity has in
itself no objective meaning, as long as we are unable to employ
Euclidean rigid bodies which can be moved about on the plane E for the
purpose of comparing the size of the disc-shadows. In respect of the
laws of disposition of the shadows L’, the point S has no special
privileges on the plane any more than on the spherical surface.

The representation given above of spherical geometry on the plane is
important for us, because it readily allows itself to be transferred
to the three-dimensional case.

Let us imagine a point S of our space, and a great number of small
spheres, L’, which can all be brought to coincide with one another.
But these spheres are not to be rigid in the sense of Euclidean
geometry; their radius is to increase (in the sense of Euclidean
geometry) when they are moved away from S towards infinity, and this
increase is to take place in exact accordance with the same law as
applies to the increase of the radii of the disc-shadows L’ on the

After having gained a vivid mental image of the geometrical behaviour
of our spheres, let us assume that in our space there are no ‘rigid’
bodies at all in the sense of Euclidean geometry, but only bodies
having the behaviour of our L’ spheres.
Then we shall have a vivid representation of three-dimensional
spherical space, or, rather of three-dimensional spherical geometry.
Here our spheres must be called “rigid” spheres. Their increase in
size as they depart from S is not to be detected by measuring with
measuring-rods, any more than in the case of the disc-shadows on E
because the standards of measurement behave in the same way as the
spheres. Space is homogeneous, that is to say, the same spherical
configurations are possible in the environment of all points. * Our
space is finite, because, in consequence of the “growth” of the
spheres, only a finite number of them can find room in space.

In this way, by using as stepping-stones the practice in thinking and
visualisation which Euclidean geometry gives us, we have acquired a
mental picture of spherical geometry. We may without difficulty impart
more depth and vigour to these ideas by carrying out special imaginary
constructions. Nor would it be difficult to represent the case of what
is called elliptical geometry in an analogous manner.
My only aim today has been to show that the human faculty of
visualisation is by no means bound to capitulate to non-Euclidean


* This is intelligible without calculation – but only for the
two-dimensional case – if we revert once more to the case of the disc
on the surface of the sphere.


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