Gods equation : Einstein, relativity, and the expanding universe

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Amir D. Aczel has appeared on more than 30 television programs,… More about Amir D.


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Related Articles. Looking for More Great Reads? For Mach, all scientific conclusions were distilled from physical observations. Drawing on Mach's insistence on the empirical, Einstein made physics relative and precise, and left Newton's theory as the limit of relativity when speeds are those encountered in everyday life.

The scientist who influenced Einstein's work the most was the Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell. Maxwell developed the idea of a field, which is essential to all of Albert Einstein's work.

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The iron shavings align themselves in a distinct pattern from one magnetic pole to the other. The visible patterns are a picture of the magnetic field produced by a magnet. Maxwell's work opened the way for science to do away with fictitious concepts such as the ether, which. Maxwell's work can be seen as the harbinger of Einstein's relativity, where fields are basic elements of the theory.

God's Equation: Einstein, Relativity, and the Expanding Universe

But other scientists contributed as well to Einstein's fund of knowledge, which he used in developing the special theory of relativity while employed at the Swiss patent office. Einstein put forward the special theory of relativity in , a year in which he also completed three other groundbreaking works which were published that amazing year: papers on Brownian motion, on the light-quantum theory, and a doctoral dissertation on molecular dimensions.


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Einstein's work on relativity changed our notions of motion, space, and time. Space was never again to be viewed as absolute, but rather relative to one's frame of reference. The idea of reference frames echoed a similar notion proposed by Galileo three centuries earlier. Galileo considered what would happen if a ball was dropped from the top of a mast of a ship, as compared with a ball dropped from the same height on land. In the first case, the reference frame—the boat—is moving, while in the second case the reference frame—terra firma—is not moving. What would happen to the ball?

Would it fall straight down on the moving boat, or trace a path backwards as if it had been dropped on solid ground? Einstein took this idea of moving frames of reference and brought it to unexplored territory— objects moving at speeds close to that of light.

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In this new relativistic world Einstein had given us there was only one absolute: the speed of light. Everything else was. Space and time were united to give us spacetime. A twin traveling on a fast spaceship was proved to age more slowly than his or her twin remaining on the ground. Moving objects change and time dilates as the speed of a body approaches that of light. Time slows down. If anything could go faster than light, which relativity forbids, it would then move into the past.

Space and time are no longer rigid—they are plastic and depend on how close an object gets to the speed of light. The absoluteness and universality of time had been a sacred tenet of physics and no one had questioned the assumptions. Time was the same everywhere, and the flow of time was constant.

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Einstein showed that these assumptions were simply not true. The constant quantity was the speed of light—everything else, space and time, adjusted themselves around this universal constant. Einstein's special theory of relativity made obvious one of the most puzzling negative experimental results in history: the Michelson-Morley quest for the ether.

James Clerk Maxwell, who had done so much for our understanding of physics, and whose theory inspired Einstein, was like other scientists in the pre-relativity world—a believer in the theory of the ether, derived from the ancient Greeks.

God's Equation

In an entry he wrote for the edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, Maxwell wrote: "All space has been filled three or four times over with aethers. People thought that light and other radiation and particles needed some medium through which to travel. No such medium was ever actually seen or felt, but somehow, it had to exist. This assumption was so pervasive that respected scientists took it very seriously. One of them was Albert A. Michelson , a noted American physicist who in was working at a Berlin laboratory and was made aware of a letter written by Maxwell.

Michelson was an expert at measuring the speed of light. He was intrigued. Michelson embarked on a series of work of increasing accuracy aimed at detecting changes in the speed of light which would indicate an ether drift. Most of the experiment was done jointly with the American chemist Edward W. Morley Michelson and Morley measured the speed of light both in the direction of the Earth's rotation and against that direction and expected to find a difference in the speed.

But they. There was no ether drift, and apparently no ether. In , Michelson became the first American scientist to receive a Nobel Prize. By then, Einstein's special theory of relativity had explained to the world why Michelson and Morley had obtained their unexpected result. It is not clear when Einstein learned of the Michelson-Morley experiment that found the surprising zero change in the speed of light when measured with or without Earth's rotation. Einstein used purely theoretical considerations, his "thought experiments," to determine that the speed of light remains constant no matter how fast the source of light moves toward or away from the observer.

He had spent many hours discussing the problem of space and time with his friend Michele Angelo Besso, and then, suddenly, the answer came to him. The following day, without saying hello, Einstein pounced on his friend with the explanation of the principle of relativity: "Thank you! I've completely solved the problem. An analysis of the concept of time was my solution. Time cannot be absolutely defined, and there is an inseparable relation between time and signal velocity.

Within relativity, time is not the same everywhere. Einstein used the bell tower of Bern and the bell tower of a neighboring village to illustrate his point. And the special theory of relativity explained it all. But what if an ether drift were detected? It was. Einstein realized that relativity—the "special" theory of relativity he had constructed—was true in a world without massive objects. Masses, and gravitation, required another theory.

Einstein's errors

The existing theory of gravitation was the one developed by Isaac Newton three centuries earlier, but once the special theory of relativity was understood, it was clear that Newton's theory was only a limiting case, correct for a world where speeds are much less than that of light. So there were two theories, Einstein concluded, special relativity and Newton's gravitation. Both of them were good in special limiting cases: Newton's theory was good in a low-speed world but would have to be corrected in a universe where light and its speed—the universal limit—play a role.

Similarly, special relativity was correct when gravity was insignificant, and that theory, too, would have to change so it would be true in a universe dominated by massive objects. If the speed of light is absolute, and time itself is relative, then Newton's laws could not hold under such con-.

In such cases, where time becomes relative, the rules for moving objects could not be the old Newtonian laws, Einstein deduced. Somehow, the two theories—Newton's theory of gravitation and Einstein's special relativity—had to merge, to give a general theory of relativity.

This would be a theory of relativity and gravitation. But how could this be achieved? In , having derived the principle of special relativity two years earlier, Albert Einstein, now 28 and working at the Swiss patent office in Bern as a Technical Expert, second class promoted from third class just the year before , now directed his attention to the problem of gravitation. Some time in November , Albert Einstein was sitting in his chair at the patent office in Bern, thinking about the implications of the special theory of relativity, whose ideas he had finished developing two years earlier.

He later described the portentous moment in his Kyoto lecture with these words: "All of a sudden, a thought occurred to me: if a person falls freely, he will not feel his own weight.