How Did Einstein’s Theories Challenge Accepted Views of the Universe

How Did Einstein’s Theories Challenge Accepted Views of the Universe

After two eclipse expeditions confirmed Einstein’southward theory of full general relativity, the scientist became an international celebrity.
The New York Times Archives / Photo Illustration by Shaylyn Esposito

When the year 1919 began, Albert Einstein was virtually unknown beyond the world of professional physicists. Past year’s end, however, he was a household proper noun effectually the globe. Nov 1919 was the month that fabricated Einstein into “Einstein,” the beginning of the former patent clerk’s transformation into an international celebrity.

On November vi, scientists at a joint meeting of the Majestic Lodge of London and the Regal Astronomical Guild appear that measurements taken during a total solar eclipse before that year supported Einstein’s bold new theory of gravity, known equally general relativity. Newspapers enthusiastically picked up the story. “Revolution in Scientific discipline,” blared the
of London; “Newtonian Ideas Overthrown.” A few days afterward, the
New York Times
weighed in with a six-tiered headline—rare indeed for a science story. “Lights All Beveled in the Heavens,” trumpeted the primary headline. A bit further down: “Einstein’s Theory Triumphs” and “Stars Not Where They Seemed, or Were Calculated to Exist, But Nobody Need Worry.”

The spotlight would remain on Einstein and his seemingly impenetrable theory for the rest of his life. As he remarked to a friend in 1920: “At present every coachman and every waiter argues about whether or non the relativity theory is right.” In Berlin, members of the public crowded into the classroom where Einstein was teaching, to the dismay of tuition-paying students. And then he conquered the Us. In 1921, when the steamship
arrived in Hoboken, New Jersey, with Einstein on board, it was met by some 5,000 cheering New Yorkers. Reporters in minor boats pulled alongside the ship even before it had docked. An fifty-fifty more over-the-top episode played out a decade later, when Einstein arrived in San Diego, en route to the California Establish of Technology where he had been offered a temporary position. Einstein was met at the pier not only by the usual throng of reporters, but by rows of cheering students chanting the scientist’s name.

The intense public reaction to Einstein has long intrigued historians. Movie stars accept always attracted adulation, of course, and twoscore years later the world would find itself immersed in Beatlemania—just a physicist? Nothing like it had ever been seen before, and—with the exception of Stephen Hawking, who experienced a milder form of glory—it hasn’t been seen since, either.

Over the years, a standard, if incomplete, explanation emerged for why the world went mad over a physicist and his work: In the wake of a horrific global war—a conflict that collection the downfall of empires and left millions dead—people were desperate for something uplifting, something that rose above nationalism and politics. Einstein, born in Frg, was a Swiss citizen living in Berlin, Jewish likewise every bit a pacifist, and a theorist whose work had been confirmed by British astronomers. And information technology wasn’t just whatever theory, but 1 which moved, or seemed to move, the stars. After years of trench warfare and the chaos of revolution, Einstein’southward theory arrived like a bolt of lightning, jolting the world back to life.

Mythological equally this story sounds, it contains a grain of truth, says Diana Kormos-Buchwald, a historian of scientific discipline at Caltech and director and general editor of the Einstein Papers Project. In the immediate aftermath of the war, the thought of a High german scientist—a German
anything—receiving acclamation from the British was astonishing.

“German scientists were in limbo,” Kormos-Buchwald says. “They weren’t invited to international conferences; they weren’t immune to publish in international journals. And it’s remarkable how Einstein steps in to fix this trouble. He uses his fame to repair contact betwixt scientists from former enemy countries.”

Lights All Askew
Headline in the New York Times about Einstein’s newly confirmed general theory of relativity, November 10, 1919.
The New York Times Archives / Dan Falk

At that time, Kormos-Buchwald adds, the idea of a famous scientist was unusual. Marie Curie was one of the few widely known names. (She already had 2 Nobel Prizes by 1911; Einstein wouldn’t receive his until 1922, when he was retroactively awarded the 1921 prize.) However, Britain also had something of a celebrity-scientist in the form of Sir Arthur Eddington, the astronomer who organized the eclipse expeditions to test general relativity. Eddington was a Quaker and, like Einstein, had been opposed to the war. Fifty-fifty more crucially, he was one of the few people in England who understood Einstein’s theory, and he recognized the importance of putting it to the test.

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“Eddington was the smashing popularizer of science in United kingdom. He was the Carl Sagan of his fourth dimension,” says Marcia Bartusiak, science author and professor in MIT’south graduate Scientific discipline Writing plan. “He played a key office in getting the media’s attention focused on Einstein.”

Information technology also helped Einstein’s fame that his new theory was presented as a kind of cage friction match between himself and Isaac Newton, whose portrait hung in the very room at the Royal Society where the triumph of Einstein’south theory was announced.

“Everyone knows the trope of the apple tree supposedly falling on Newton’s head,” Bartusiak says. “And hither was a German scientist who was said to be overturning Newton, and making a prediction that was really tested—that was an phenomenal moment.”

Much was made of the supposed incomprehensibility of the new theory. In the
New York Times
story of November ten, 1919—the “Lights All Askew” edition—the reporter paraphrases J.J. Thompson, president of the Royal Society, as stating that the details of Einstein’due south theory “are purely mathematical and tin can only be expressed in strictly scientific terms” and that it was “useless to effort to detail them for the man in the street.” The same article quotes an astronomer, West.J.Southward. Lockyer, equally maxim that the new theory’s equations, “while very important,” practice not “touch on anything on this earth. They do not personally concern ordinary man beings; merely astronomers are afflicted.” (If Lockyer could have time travelled to the nowadays day, he would observe a globe in which millions of ordinary people routinely navigate with the help of GPS satellites, which depend directly on both special and general relativity.)

The idea that a handful of clever scientists might understand Einstein’s theory, merely that such comprehension was off limits to mere mortals, did not sit down well with everyone—including the
New York Times’ own staff. The day after the “Lights All Askew” article ran, an editorial asked what “common folk” ought to make of Einstein’s theory, a set of ideas that “cannot be put in language comprehensible to them.” They conclude with a mix of frustration and sarcasm: “If we gave it up, no damage would be done, for we are used to that, just to take the giving up washed for us is—well, just a little irritating.”

Young Einstein
A portrait of Albert Einstein published on the cover of Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung on December 14, 1919.
Ullstein Bild via Getty Images

Things were not going any smoother in London, where the editors of the
confessed their own ignorance but also placed some of the blame on the scientists themselves. “We cannot profess to follow the details and implications of the new theory with consummate certainty,” they wrote on November 28, “simply we are consoled by the reflection that the protagonists of the fence, including even Dr. Einstein himself, detect no trivial difficulty in making their pregnant clear.”

Readers of that day’s
were treated to Einstein’s own explanation, translated from German. It ran under the headline, “Einstein on his Theory.” The most comprehensible paragraph was the final ane, in which Einstein jokes near his own “relative” identity: “Today in Deutschland I am chosen a High german homo of science, and in England I am represented every bit a Swiss Jew. If I come to be regarded as a

noire, the descriptions will be reversed, and I shall become a Swiss Jew for the Germans, and a German language man of science for the English.”

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Non to be outdone, the
New York Times
sent a contributor to pay a visit to Einstein himself, in Berlin, finding him “on the top floor of a fashionable flat firm.” Again they try—both the reporter and Einstein—to illuminate the theory. Asked why it’s called “relativity,” Einstein explains how Galileo and Newton envisioned the workings of the universe and how a new vision is required, ane in which time and space are seen as relative. Simply the best part was again the ending, in which the reporter lays downwards a now-clichéd chestnut which would have been fresh in 1919: “Just then an old grandfather’s clock in the library chimed the mid-twenty-four hour period hour, reminding Dr. Einstein of some engagement in another role of Berlin, and one-time-fashioned time and space enforced their wonted absolute tyranny over him who had spoken and then contemptuously of their existence, thus terminating the interview.”

Efforts to “explain Einstein” continued. Eddington wrote about relativity in the
Illustrated London News
and, eventually, in popular books. And then likewise did luminaries like Max Planck, Wolfgang Pauli and Bertrand Russell. Einstein wrote a volume too, and it remains in impress to this twenty-four hour period. Simply in the popular imagination, relativity remained deeply mysterious. A decade after the first flurry of media interest, an editorial in the
New York Times
lamented: “Countless textbooks on relativity have made a dauntless try at explaining and have succeeded at most in conveying a vague sense of analogy or metaphor, dimly perceptible while ane follows the argument painfully word past give-and-take and lost when one lifts his mind from the text.”

Eventually, the alleged incomprehensibility of Einstein’south theory became a selling signal, a feature rather than a bug. Crowds connected to follow Einstein, not, presumably, to proceeds an understanding of curved space-time, simply rather to be in the presence of someone who apparently did understand such lofty matters. This reverence explains, perchance, why so many people showed up to hear Einstein deliver a series of lectures in Princeton in 1921. The classroom was filled to flood—at least at the beginning, Kormos-Buchwald says. “The first 24-hour interval at that place were 400 people there, including ladies with fur collars in the front row. And on the 2d day in that location were 200, and on the third twenty-four hour period at that place were 50, and on the fourth twenty-four hours the room was almost empty.”

1919 Eclipse Image
Original explanation: From the written report of Sir Arthur Eddington on the expedition to verify Albert Einstein’s prediction of the bending of light around the sun.
Public Domain

If the average citizen couldn’t understand what Einstein was saying, why were so many people smashing on hearing him say it? Bartisuak suggests that Einstein can be seen as the modernistic equivalent of the aboriginal shaman who would accept mesmerized our Paleolithic ancestors. The shaman “supposedly had an inside track on the purpose and nature of the universe,” she says. “Through the ages, there has been this fascination with people that you call back have this hush-hush knowledge of how the world works. And Einstein was the ultimate symbol of that.”

The physicist and science historian Abraham Pais has described Einstein similarly. To many people, Einstein appeared as “a new Moses come up down from the mountain to bring the police and a new Joshua controlling the motion of the heavenly bodies.” He was the “divine man” of the 20th century.

Einstein’s advent and personality helped. Here was a jovial, mild-mannered human with deep-prepare eyes, who spoke just a little English. (He did not yet have the wild hair of his afterward years, though that would come presently enough.) With his violin example and sandals—he famously shunned socks—Einstein was just eccentric enough to delight American journalists. (He would after joke that his profession was “lensman’s model.”) Co-ordinate to Walter Isaacson’s 2007 biography,
Einstein: His Life and Universe, the reporters who defenseless up with the scientist “were thrilled that the newly discovered genius was not a drab or reserved academic” but rather “a charming 40-twelvemonth-onetime, just passing from handsome to distinctive, with a wild burst of hair, rumpled informality, twinkling eyes, and a willingness to dispense wisdom in bite-sized quips and quotes.”

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The timing of Einstein’s new theory helped heighten his fame besides. Newspapers were flourishing in the early 20th century, and the advent of black-and-white newsreels had just begun to brand it possible to exist an international celebrity. As Thomas Levenson notes in his 2004 book
Einstein in Berlin, Einstein knew how to play to the cameras. “Even better, and usefully in the silent film era, he was not expected to exist intelligible. … He was the first scientist (and in many ways the last as well) to achieve truly iconic status, at least in function because for the first fourth dimension the means existed to create such idols.”

Einstein, like many celebrities, had a love-detest relationship with fame, which he once described as “dazzling misery.” The abiding intrusions into his individual life were an annoyance, but he was happy to utilize his fame to draw attention to a variety of causes that he supported, including Zionism, pacifism, nuclear disarmament and racial equality.

Einstein Portrait
A portrait of Albert Einstein taken at Princeton in 1935.
Sophie Delar

Non everyone loved Einstein, of course. Diverse groups had their own distinctive reasons for objecting to Einstein and his work, John Stachel, the founding editor of the Einstein Papers Project and a professor at Boston University, told me in a 2004 interview. Some American philosophers rejected relativity for being as well abstract and metaphysical, while some Russian thinkers felt it was besides idealistic. Some only hated Einstein considering he was a Jew.

“Many of those who opposed Einstein on philosophical grounds were also anti-Semites, and afterwards on, adherents of what the Nazis called
Deutsche Physic—‘German physics’—which was ‘good’ Aryan physics, as opposed to this
Jüdisch Spitzfindigkeit—‘Jewish subtlety,’ Stachel says. “So one gets complicated mixtures, just the myth that everybody loved Einstein is certainly not true. He was hated as a Jew, as a pacifist, as a socialist [and] as a relativist, at least.” As the 1920s wore on, with anti-Semitism on the rise, decease threats against Einstein became routine. Fortunately he was on a working holiday in the U.s. when Hitler came to power. He would never render to the country where he had done his greatest work.

For the residue of his life, Einstein remained mystified by the relentless attention paid to him. As he wrote in 1942, “I never understood why the theory of relativity with its concepts and problems so far removed from practical life should for then long have met with a lively, or indeed passionate, resonance among broad circles of the public. … What could have produced this dandy and persistent psychological issue? I never yet heard a truly convincing answer to this question.”

Today, a full century later on his ascent to superstardom, the Einstein phenomenon continues to resist a complete explanation. The theoretical physicist outburst onto the world stage in 1919, expounding a theory that was, as the newspapers put it, “dimly perceptible.” Notwithstanding in spite of the theory’southward opacity—or, very likely, because of it—Einstein was hoisted onto the lofty pedestal where he remains to this day. The public may not accept understood the equations, but those equations were said to reveal a new truth nigh the universe, and that, it seems, was plenty.

How Did Einstein’s Theories Challenge Accepted Views of the Universe