Try to envision a time when you didn’t know the name Einstein. Though there’s certainly more than one person to have that name, you’ve lived your entire life hearing a particular set of ideas associated with it. Genius. Science. Our understanding of the universe. The impact of Albert Einstein on physics, scientific theory, and our general ideas of time and space is beyond measure. And yet, there was a time that the world didn’t know his name. That all changed 100 years ago this week, when two expeditions went out to try and prove one of his groundbreaking theories during a solar eclipse. This is the story of how one man’s idea changed the way we look at everything.
Born in Germany in 1879, Einstein proved early on that he was a math prodigy. By his early teens, he was conversant in calculus and geometry; he already had the idea that nature itself was a type of “mathematical structure.” At age 17, he went to Zurich Polytechnic on their four-year teaching diploma program for math and physics. His first wife, Mileva Maric, was the only female student in the division. In 1900, Einstein earned the diploma. While he wasn’t able to pursue a teaching job at first, Einstein got a job as a patent clerk while continuing to pursue the publication of academic papers.
Einstein published his first paper in 1900 and continued to work while pursuing a Ph.D. in physics. He earned his doctorate from the University of Zurich in 1905 after finishing his thesis, “A New Determination of Molecular Dimensions.” 1905 has been called Einstein’s “miracle year,” as he published four other papers that impacted how the rest of the world views the universe. As his reputation grew, Einstein received a lecturer appointment at the University of Berne and became an associate professor of theoretical physics at the University of Zurich in 1909. For the new few years, Einstein published more and more papers as he taught across a number of fine schools in Europe. Work that he did in 1911 would lay the groundwork for boundary-pushing experimentation.
That was the year that Einstein took a deep dive into general relativity. Einstein theorized that light reaching us from another star should be bent by the gravity of Earth’s sun. This was a fairly radical reading, as it would actually be an improved understanding of ideas forwarded in Sir Isaac Newton’s law of universal gravitation. In fact, the deeper meanings of all of Einstein’s writing made bold suggestions about the nature not only of gravity, but of space and time.
Of course, suggestions like this need to be proven. One attempt was made during a solar eclipse in 1918. The solar eclipse was the right time to test the idea of starlight bending from the sun because the relative position of other stars to our sun would be visible under these conditions. Unfortunately, the testing and observation was defeated by, of all, things, clouds.
Fortunately, a solar eclipse was on the calendar for May 29, 1919, and two expeditions set out to see if they could prove Einstein’s ideas. Arthur Stanley Eddington, an astrophysicist, and astronomer Frank Watson Dyson, well-respected scientists in their own right, led a group to Principe, the West African island that would be in the path of the eclipse. French astronomer Andrew Claude de la Cherois Crommelin and Charles Rundle Davidson of England’s Royal Observatory took their group to Sobral, Brazil. Both teams had a mission to observe the stars that formed the constellation Taurus, which would be crossed by the eclipse; the shape of Taurus is composed of dozens of stars, including the star-cluster called the Hyades, which is more or less the “head” that we see from Earth.
Eddington had been a big believer in Einstein’s work for years, and he aggressively petitioned the Royal Astronomical Society in Britain to back the test. Despite the fact that World War I was going on when he first proposed the project, Eddington was given a service deferment because it was deemed that his work served the national interest. Eddington’s team was to look for changes in the position of the stars as they passed near the Sun in what we call the celestial sphere, which is basically a way in which we envision how the stars move relative to our position on Earth. Once again, clouds conspired against science. Eddington’s team managed to get one clear picture that presented measurements that agreed with Einstein. Fortunately, the team in Brazil had better weather and were able to back Eddington’s conclusion.
As a result, Einstein shot to overnight fame. The proof of this theory meant that Einstein’s broader notions of general relativity that included any manner of things from black holes to the curvature of space-time were now also possible. The experiment made worldwide news and ushered in a new excitement around physics and astronomy. More tests with updated methods would be applied to see if Einstein’s ideas held up; by the 1960s, using data from radio frequencies and other methods, scientists were able to confirm that Einstein had indeed been completely right the entire time.
Professor Brian Greene explains general relativity on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. (Uploaded to YouTube by The Late Show with Stephen Colbert)
So what does this mean for the everyday person? It means that one human can unlock greater understanding of the universe. It means that certain mathematical and scientific ideas can hold true across the breadth of time and space. It means that we can more accurately measure and predict the forces out there in the vastness, even applying elements of the theory to examine the origins of existence. And it means that time travel is possible (maybe). From the human side of the equation, Einstein’s writing and the work of the teams that set out to prove them remind us that there is a grandeur in intellectual achievement. Sometimes, it’s just better to know what we didn’t know before.
Featured image: A Nebula in the Constellation of Taurus. (NASA.gov)
In this 1929 interview with a Post reporter, Albert Einstein discussed the role of relativity, why he thought nationalism was the “measles of mankind,” and how he might have become a happy, mediocre fiddler if he hadn’t become a genius in physics.
When a Post correspondent interviewed Albert Einstein about his thought process in 1929, Einstein did not speak of careful reasoning and calculations. Instead —
“I believe in intuitions and inspirations. I sometimes feel that I am right. I do not know that I am… [but] I would have been surprised if I had been wrong
“I am enough of the artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”
Something else that was circling the globe in that year was Einstein’s reputation. At the time of this interview, his fame had spread across Europe and America. Everywhere he was acclaimed a genius for defining the principles of relativity, though very few people understood what they meant.
Imagination may have been essential to his breakthrough thinking, but Einstein’s discovery also rested on his vast knowledge of physical science. Knowledge and imagination let him see the relationship between space, time, and energy. Using mathematics, he developed a model for understanding how objects and light behave in extreme conditions — as in the subatomic world, where the old Newtonian principles didn’t appear to work.
Whenever Einstein explained his work to the popular press, though, reporters got lost in his talk of space-time continuum, absolute speed of light, and E=Δmc2. So they used their own imaginations to define relativity. One of their misinterpretations was the idea that relativity meant everything is relative. The old absolutes were gone. Nothing was certain anymore.
It was a ridiculous interpretation that could only have made sense if newspaper readers were no bigger than a proton, or could travel near the speed of light.
This misperception was so common that the Post writer used it to start his interview.
“Relativity! What word is more symbolic of the age? We have ceased to be positive of anything. We look upon all things in the light of relativity. Relativity has become the plaything of the parlor philosopher.”
Einstein, as always, patiently clarified his concept.
“‘The meaning of relativity has been widely misunderstood, Philosophers play with the word, like a child with a doll. Relativity, as I see it, merely denotes that certain physical and mechanical facts, which have been regarded as positive and permanent, are relative with regard to certain other facts in the sphere of physics and mechanics. It does not mean that everything in life is relative and that we have the right to turn the whole world mischievously topsy-turvy.'”
The world of the early 20th Century certainly felt like it was being inverted — with or without relativity. Even as Einstein was developing his theory about the space-time continuum and the nature of light, old Europe was dying in record numbers. Just a few weeks before Einstein released his general theory of relativity in 1916, the German Imperial Army began its assault at Verdun. In the ensuing, ten-month battle, France and Germany suffered 800,000 casualties. Four months later, the British launched their catastrophic attack at the Somme and suffered 58,000 casualties in a single day.
The survivors of these debacles were disillusioned by the waste of this war, and the peace that followed. The youth of Europe and America were looking for new truths. The old ones seemed empty and especially lethal to young men. They saw how noble sacrifice could be used for political ends. And they had seen how virtue and faith fared against massed machine guns.
This “Relativity” they read about seemed promising, if it meant that thousands wouldn’t have to die needlessly, of that could live beyond the limiting moral codes of their parents.
Einstein, himself, didn’t indulge in any of this relativism. He was a man of strong beliefs, not equivocations. For instance, his love of music was absolute.
“‘If… I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music. I cannot tell if I would have done any creative work of importance in music, but I do know that I get most joy in life out of my violin.'”
“Einstein’s taste in music is severely classical. Even Wagner is to him no unalloyed feast of the ears. He adores Mozart and Bach. He even prefers their work to the architectural music of Beethoven.”
He disagreed with the traditional Jewish concept of free will.
“I am a determinist. As such, I do not believe in free will. The Jews believe in free will. They believe that man shapes his own life. I reject that doctrine philosophically. In that respect I am not a Jew… Practically, I am nevertheless, compelled to act as if freedom of the will existed. If I wish to live in a civilized community, I must act as if man is a responsible being.”
He never expressed any belief in a personal God, but he believed in the historical Jesus — not the popularized prophet such as appeared in a best-selling biography by Emil Ludwig.
“Ludwig’s Jesus,” Einstein replied, “is shallow. Jesus is too colossal for the pen of phrasemongers, however artful. No man can dispose of Christianity with a bon mot.”
“You accept the historical existence of Jesus?”
“Unquestionably. No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life. How different, for instance, is the impression which we receive from an account of legendary heroes of antiquity like Theseus. Theseus and other heroes of his type lack the authentic vitality of Jesus.”
Einstein was no relativist on the subject of nationalism, which he saw grow violent and intolerant from his Berlin home.
“Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind.”
It was different in the United States, he believed.
“Nationalism in the United States does not assume such disagreeable forms as in Europe. This may be due partly to the fact that your country is so immense, that you do not think in terms of narrow borders. It may be due to the fact that you do not suffer from the heritage of hatred or fear which poisons the relations of the nations of Europe.”
Three years later, Einstein fled Germany to seek asylum in the United States, where he became a citizen in 1940. (Not for the last time, America was enriched by the intolerance of other countries.)
It is interesting to see how Einstein viewed America three years before he made it his new home.
“In America, more than anywhere else, the individual is lost in the achievements of the many. America is beginning to be the world leader in scientific investigation. American scholarship is both patient and inspiring. The Americans show an unselfish devotion to science, which is the very opposite of the conventional European view of your countrymen.
“Too many of us look upon Americans as dollar chasers. This is a cruel libel, even if it is reiterated thoughtlessly by the Americans themselves. It is not true that the dollar is an American fetish. The American student is not interested in dollars, not even in success as such, but in his task, the object of the search. It is his painstaking application to the study of the infinitely little and infinitely large.”
The only criticism Einstein could find for America was its emphasis on homogenizing its citizens into a single type.
“Standardization robs life of its spice. To deprive every ethnic group of its special traditions is to convert the world into a huge Ford plant. I believe in standardizing automobiles. I do not believe in standardizing human beings. Standardization is a great peril which threatens American culture.”