Relativity in pop culture: ‘Men of Science More or Less Agog’

The New York Times headline announcing results of a 1919 test of Einstein's theory of general relativity

A headline published on November 10, 1919, in The New York Times.

This vintage science writing makes me wonder how quaint  – or even laughable – contemporary science journalism will look 100 years from now.

A total solar eclipse on May 29, 1919 had set the stage for the first experimental test of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, published four years earlier. According to Einstein’s theory, light rays passing close to the sun will be deflected by gravity to a greater extent than predicted by classical Newtonian physics. The reason: objects as massive as the sun put a nice big dent in space-time. During a solar eclipse, with the moon blocking the sun’s dazzle, starlight grazing the sun’s surface becomes more visible to observers on earth, who can then measure the bending angle of the light rays.

I know that not too many readers in 1919 were familiar with the concept of space-time curvature. But just look how The New York Times punts instead of going for it when it comes time to explain the results of the experiment – and why all those Men of Science were agog:

Sir Joseph Thomson, President of the Royal Society, declares it is not possible to put Einstein’s theory into really intelligible words, yet at the same time Thomson adds:

“The results of the eclipse expedition demonstrating that the rays of light from the stars are bent or deflected from their normal course by other aerial bodies acting upon them and consequently the inference that light has weight form a most important contribution to the laws of gravity given us since Newton laid down his principles.”

Thomson states that the difference between theories of Newton and those of Einstein are infinitesimal in a popular sense, and as they are purely mathematical and can only be expressed in strictly scientific terms it is useless to endeavor to detail them for the man in the street…

And doesn’t Thomson’s quote sort of miss the point of the relativity experiment? The idea that light has weight and is subject to gravity gained credibility 100 years before Einstein’s general relativity. In 1803, the German mathematician and physicist Johann Georg von Soldner even published a precise calculation of the degree that starlight would bend around the sun, based on classical Newtonian concepts of mass and gravity. Soldner’s prediction for the deflection of light came up short, but only because he didn’t know about gravity’s effect on the shape of space.

Having pronounced heaven’s lights gone all askew, The Times offered reassurance from one W.J.S. Lockyer, an astronomer who asserted, “The discoveries, while very important, did not, however, affect anything on this earth. They do not personally concern ordinary human beings; only astronomers are affected.”

Oh, the poverty of the human imagination!

Not long after 1919, science fiction writers already were having great fun playing around with the implications of relativity, as in the 1931 story Out Around Rigel by Robert H. Wilson:

In our reference frame, the vessel had put on an incredible velocity, and covered the nine-hundred-odd light-years around Rigel in six months. But from the viewpoint of the moon, it had been unable to attain a velocity greater than that of light. As the accelerating energy pressed the vessel’s speed closer and closer toward that limiting velocity, the mass of the ship and of its contents had increased toward infinity. And trying to move laboriously with such vast mass, our clocks and bodies had been slowed down until to our leaden minds a year of moon time became equivalent to several hours.

The Comet had attained an average velocity of perhaps 175,000 miles per second, and the voyage that seemed to me six months had taken a thousand years. A thousand years! The words went ringing through my brain. Kelvar had been dead for a thousand years. I was alone in a world uninhabited for centuries.

I threw myself down and battered my head in the sand.

Space Opera aside, the effects of relativity now personally concern everyone with a smart phone who uses GPS to navigate. Global Positioning System accuracy depends on adjustments for the net effect of Earth’s gravity on the curvature of space-time, which causes satellite-borne GPS clocks to tick faster than clocks on the Earth by about 38 microseconds per day.

An illustration of space travelers on an alien planet from Robert H. Wilson's science fiction story "Out Around Rigel", one of the first to deal with general relatiivity,  published in 1931 in Astounding Stories

An illustration from Robert H. Wilson’s story “Out Around Rigel”, first published in the December 1931 Astounding Stories and available via Project Gutenberg.

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