Was Einstein Right? Essay

2104 words - 8 pages

Albert Einstein's relativity has changed forever the way we think about space, time and the universe. In two papers published in 1905, he proposed a new way of looking at motion, mass and energy, and in 1915 he postulated a new conception of gravity. His 1905 papers on special relativity were just a part of his remarkable "miracle year," whose 100th anniversary physicists worldwide are celebrating with the World Year of Physics.Some scholars have even suggested that Einstein's relativity affected such fields as art, poetry, philosophy and history. In a 1983 book on the history of the 20th century called Modern Times, British historian Paul Johnson chose to date the beginning of the modern world not at the beginning of the century, or even at the outbreak of World War I, but instead on May 29, 1919.This was the date of a total solar eclipse in South America and Africa, during which astronomers measured the bending of starlight by the sun's gravity, thus confirming Einstein's general theory of relativity. Johnson went on to argue that the success of relativity in science was accompanied by the rise of "moral relativism" in politics and ethics, leading to many of the great catastrophes of the 20th century.That proposition may be debatable, but what is certain is that relativity has changed physics. Special relativity underlies everything we understand about light, atoms, nuclei and quarks, and is now part of the standard toolkit of every working physicist.General relativity has been part of a sea change in astronomy. Whereas once the universe was seen as a quiet place of steady, fixed stars and wispy nebulae, it is now a jungle out there, with its exploding supernovae, colliding galaxies, mysterious black holes and, of course, that most violent of all events, the Big Bang.What might Einstein have thought of all this? In 1930 he wrote that he considered "the main significance of general relativity to be the simplicity of its foundation and its internal consistency." He was rather blasé about observational or experimental questions. He once famously said that, had the astronomers' 1919 data failed to verify his theory, he would have "felt sorry for the dear Lord, for the theory is correct."But was Einstein right?In science, beauty and elegance mean nothing in the cold, steely stare of the experimentalist's eye. The failure to pass a single experimental test can kill the most beautiful and beloved theory.However, passing a test doesn't get you home free. Like participants on the game-show island, you are only allowed to survive until the next experimental test comes along.So after 100 years, how have Einstein's theories of relativity fared?His special theory has been so thoroughly woven into the fabric of physics that nobody except cranks and crackpots seriously questions it. Do moving clocks slow down? Ask anybody at a high-energy particle accelerator and she will tell you how she prolongs the lives of unstable particles by having them move...

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