November 20, 2015

A Century Ago Albert Einstein Showed The Most Unlikely Idea Can Be Right


It's one thing for researchers to come up with the answer to an obvious problem.
That's the way government and industry research programs run these days. Money and resources flow to the initiatives which can justify the investment and which promise a large return.

But 100 years ago something extraordinary happened which was exactly the opposite. Albert Einstein conjured out of nowhere the answer to a very obscure problem which scarcely anyone knew existed. And it changed the world.

In November 1915 he gave four lectures, a week apart, to the Prussian Academy of Science in Berlin in which he unveiled his General Theory of Relativity. He was doing it on the run, working feverishly between each lecture to tease out details which he would announce in the next one.
When he finished he'd come up with a new theory of the universe. Among his assertions: space was curved, distorted by the presence of matter; Isaac Newton's theory of gravity was superseded; and light was bent by passing close to a massive object.


Best of all, his theory solved a niggling problem about the orbit of the planet Mercury which was exhibiting a slight but puzzling, deviation from Newton's laws. And it also made testable predictions about the way light from distant stars and galaxies would bend when it passed a large mass such as our sun.

The immediate impact of Einstein's theory was not great. World War I was raging. Curved space and bent light were not top of mind.

That all changed immediately after the war in 1919 when English physicist Arthur Eddington put General Relativity to the test. He photographed the star field behind the sun during a solar eclipse and compared it with regular photos of the same star field when the sun was not in the way. (The stars were visible during an eclipse because the moon blocks the sun's light.)
As predicted by Einstein, the stars' positions were shifted because their light passed through the space around the sun which was curved by the sun's mass.

Practical impact

At that time the Theory of General Relativity had no practical impact except to make Einstein a rock star of his day. Curved space, bent light, and an incomprehensible theory created the legend around his name.


But today it has an enormous practical impact. One of its consequences is that time is slowed near a large mass. This has to be corrected for in the clocks of GPS satellites which we use for finding position using our smartphones. If the correction for General Relativity was not made there would be accumulating error of about 10 kilometres every day.
General Relativity also led directly to the theory of black holes and whatever currently unimaginable technologies will arise from them.

One of the most extraordinary things about General Relativity is its simplicity (its fundamental equation, while hard to grasp, can be written in a few symbols) and the fact that it was the answer to a question virtually nobody was asking.

In that sense it was an idea well ahead of its time. For example, instead of coming up with an idea to explain black holes after their discovery, Einstein's theory predicted their existence.

Einstein's genius was such that he based General Relativity on a simple observation – that acceleration, such as you experience in a vehicle which is rapidly gathering speed, is the same as the downward force exerted on us by the earth's gravitational field.
There is no perceptible difference between the two. By assuming they are the same, Einstein came up with his completely left-field, out-of-the-square Theory of General Relativity.

What does it tell us today? Yes we certainly should focus our scientific effort on solving the problems which seem most likely to bring the most return for the investment.

But don't neglect seemingly way-out research which has no practical impact now. It can have immense impact down the track. A century ago Einstein proved it.

By Tim Dodd

With many thanks to The Financial Review


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