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The high-profile contest to explain Einstein

The high-profile contest to explain Einstein

12 April 2024

In 1920 Scientific American held a contest for the best essay explaining relativity to the lay public. The winner was an unknown amateur.

A portrait of Lyndon Bolton alongside the first page of his prize-winning essay.
A portrait of Lyndon Bolton appears alongside the first page of his prize-winning essay, “Relativity.” His essay headlines a 1921 collection of articles that explain Albert Einstein’s relativity theories. Credit: Scientific American Publishing Co/public domain; accessed from the Niels Bohr Library and Archives, American Institute of Physics

The total solar eclipse of 29 May 1919 propelled Albert Einstein to international celebrity. During the precious moments when the Moon blotted out the solar disk, a team of astronomers, including Arthur Eddington, measured the deflection of starlight by the Sun’s gravitational field and found it to be consistent with the amount predicted by Einstein’s theory of general relativity (see the article by Daniel Kennefick, Physics Today, March 2009, page 37). The announcement of the results five months later set off a firestorm in the press. “Einstein” quickly became synonymous with genius (see the article by Paul Halpern, Physics Today, April 2019, page 38).

The popular coverage of general relativity largely focused on the theory’s mathematical complexity. “Only 12 living men understand Einstein theory,” blared a December 1919 headline in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. And with science journalism in its infancy, many of the items published in newspapers were erroneous: The writer of the Post-Dispatch article, for example, called the fourth dimension “quickness.” Sensing a need to inform the Einstein-obsessed public, popular-science magazines like Scientific American began publishing articles in an attempt to explain relativity.

In May 1920 a wealthy Scientific American reader, Eugene Higgins, spurred the magazine to crowdsource that effort. He offered to sponsor a $5000 contest for the “best popular essay on the Einstein theories.” The magazine announced the competition two months later, with a submission deadline of 1 November. Essays needed to be no more than 3000 words and “written as simply, lucidly and non-technically as possible.”

Because of the large amount of money at stake—roughly $80 000 in 2024 dollars, a sum then rivaled in the scientific world only by the Nobel Prize—the contest attracted tremendous publicity. The magazine received 300 submissions from entrants across the globe. The essays were anonymized, designed to put science-enthusiast amateurs on an equal footing with renowned researchers, who would include Willem de Sitter and Henry Norris Russell.

Despite the prominence of some of the essayists, the prize ultimately went to an unknown amateur: Lyndon Bolton, a senior examiner at the British Patent Office in London. “It will be recalled,” the Scientific American editors dryly remarked, “that Einstein himself was in the Swiss Patent Office for some years.”

Bolton’s essay, “Relativity,” was published in the 5 February 1921 issue. It isn’t perfect. Bolton’s prose gets considerably denser as he moves from special to general relativity, and he laconically remarks that it is “not difficult to deduce” counterintuitive phenomena such as length contraction and time dilation. Yet more than a century later, the essay remains an effective entry point to understanding Einstein’s theories. Without including equations, Bolton lucidly and concisely explains such concepts as frames of reference, the 4D nature of spacetime, and the special principle of relativity, which postulates that all inertial frames of reference are equivalent.

Given the enormous reaction to the contest, Scientific American’s “Einstein editor,” J. Malcolm Bird, quickly assembled Bolton’s essay and a selection of the runners-up into a book, Einstein’s Theories of Relativity and Gravitation, that was published in May 1921. The cover features an illustration of the famed 1919 eclipse observations: A telescope observes a ray of light that has been bent by a star. The frontispiece is a classic portrait of Einstein, with mustache and tousled hair, looking upward as if deep in thought. The caption credits him as the “Originator of the Special and General Theories of Relativity,” cementing the idea that he was a singular genius.

The opening pages of a book featuring a photograph of Albert Einstein.
The contest volume’s frontispiece features a portrait of Einstein with famously tousled hair. It contributed to the canonization of the famous theorist as a singular genius. Credit: Scientific American Publishing Co/public domain; accessed from the Niels Bohr Library and Archives, American Institute of Physics

In the book, Bolton’s essay is followed by two that came close to winning the prize, both of which were also authored by amateurs. Montgomery Francis of New York employs simple diagrams and equations to explain the invariance of spacetime intervals. He emphasizes the unifying aspect of Einstein’s general-relativity theory—namely, that it “brings mechanical, electromagnetic and gravitational phenomena within one structure.” Essayist Hugh Elliot of the UK uses more accessible language, with a beautiful explanation of how the invariance of the speed of light implies that space and time are relative.

Several scientist-written essays also made the cut. De Sitter’s submission centers almost exclusively on general relativity, attempting to demystify it through an in-depth explanation of non-Euclidean geometry. His decision to focus on Einstein’s broader theory is perhaps unsurprising given his famous 1916–17 series of papers on the astronomical consequences of general relativity.

Russell’s entry, on the other hand, is devoted nearly entirely to the special theory. After describing the Michelson–Morley experiment and its failure to detect ether drift, he offers a cogent explanation of the consequences of special relativity. A columnist for Scientific American since 1900, Russell had experienced writing for lay audiences—he authored the magazine’s first article on the eclipse observations—and likely sought an approachable entry point to the topic.

The Einstein contest essays are a testament to one of the first instances when the broader public became interested in a mathematically complex scientific theory. As the physical sciences became increasingly abstruse over the course of the 20th century, science communication transformed into a field unto itself. But one thing remains invariant: the popular allure of Einstein and his theory.

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