Recently I read that scientists have compared the vibrational frequency of a chemical bond of methane in a distant galaxy with that of methane here on Earth, and they now know that in the past 7 billion years, a particular nuclear force has remained unchanged to within at least 1 part in 10 billion. That experimental result failed to ease my mind regarding the world’s stability, but it does illustrate the deep understanding we now have of our universe. Einstein’s theory—surely one of humanity’s grandest intellectual achievements—did open up new vistas that revealed the origin and evolution of our universe.
Just over 100 years ago, Albert Einstein published his general theory of relativity—10 years after his annus mirabilis when he, arguably, laid the foundations of quantum physics. In its broadest terms, the theory established the intimate connection between space, time, and matter. That inseparable relationship had no practical consequences under normal conditions, and Newton’s well-established laws of motion needed to be modified only under very extreme ones—say, at speeds approaching the speed of light. So Einstein was astonished by the enormous fuss four years later, when an astronomical observation—the deflection of light by the Sun’s gravity—confirmed his theory.
Einstein maintained that unlike Copernicus’s theory, which demoted our planet from its central role in the solar system, his theory did not affect anyone’s philosophy or worldview. Indeed, in 1915, when his eight-page paper “On the general theory of relativity” appeared in the Proceedings of the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences, few people paid attention to it, and among physicists, there were more than a few skeptics.
Surprisingly for that time, Einstein presented his new theory to the general public even before it was quite finished, first in a newspaper article and soon after that in a popular lecture in Berlin’s Treptow Observatory in June 1915. In fact, he gave nonspecialist lectures on relativity on many other occasions and also wrote a hugely successful book about it. Explaining your work to lay audiences is an excellent way to clarify your own ideas, but Einstein also saw it as a scientist’s responsibility to society.1
That paper was one of seven articles he published in 1915. Another was entitled “My opinion on the war,” in which he defended his pacifist position even as nationalistic fervor swept Germany. That Einstein was able to complete his theory under the prevailing circumstances is evidence of his extraordinary power of concentration.
World War I was in its second year, Berlin was experiencing a severe food shortage, and Einstein’s personal life was in a shambles. His marriage to Mileva Marić had broken up the year before, and she had returned to Zürich with their two sons. Since then Einstein had been engaged in a bitter exchange of letters with her, even while he anxiously tried to retain a close relationship with his sons, who were 5 and 11 at the time. He had moved to an apartment not far from that of his cousin and good friend Elsa Löwenthal. A divorce agreement with Mileva became official in February 1919, and he married Elsa in June.
In November of that year, at a well-publicized meeting of the Royal Society in London, Arthur Eddington announced that his astronomical expeditions had measured the deflection of starlight by the Sun’s gravitational field and that the result confirmed the general theory of relativity. Einstein became a worldwide celebrity overnight, and his life was changed irrevocably.