General relativity centennial celebrates Einstein’s genius

eva headshotEinstein is shorthand for genius, and describing everything Albert Einstein did to inspire that synonym would take a book, or multiple books (see reviews of some). But in this issue, Science News uses the opportunity of the 100th anniversary of the general theory of relativity to take a deep dive into one — perhaps the most important — of Einstein’s scientific contributions.

Tom Siegfried describes the challenges that Einstein faced and met to develop his theory, which reimagined gravity as a warping of spacetime. Of course, his equations had much wider implications. As Christopher Crockett explores, general relativity’s requirement that gravity bend light has been a boon to astronomers seeking to see the most ancient stars and galaxies. Gravitational lenses can help magnify or brighten images of faraway objects, extending scientists’ vision. Gravitational waves, another consequence of general relativity, have been detected indirectly; scientists are actively searching for direct evidence.

General relativity has been wildly successful, but it doesn’t mesh well with quantum mechanics, the 20th century’s other revolutionary advance in physics, as Andrew Grant reports. But some physicists believe those two ideas may merge via Einstein’s offspring: black holes and wormholes.

Putting together this special report gave me a greater appreciation of Einstein and his work. It also highlighted a bit of our own history: As Siegfried notes in his essay, Science News Letter paid for a Czech émigré (an electrical engineer supporting himself by washing dishes) to visit Einstein in 1936. Rudi Mandl realized that if gravity bends light, then massive objects in space could actually act as lenses. With this magazine’s help, he nudged Einstein into doing the math to prove it.

General relativity has grown more important in the last 50 years than it was in Einstein’s time. Many areas of interest have evolved from issues Einstein raised in 1917, when he applied his theory to the entire universe. General relativity is still inspiring the scientific enterprise, spurring scientists to try to be a bit like Einstein.

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