Einstein’s Theory of General Relevancy
by Eric Bender
Your cell phone knows about the theory of general relativity that Albert Einstein proposed a century ago. Its built-in GPS navigation system wouldn’t work without the realization that the clocks in the GPS satellites 13,000 miles above us run slightly faster than clocks on the surface of the earth, due to gravitational effects that general relativity predicts.
That’s just one example of why Einstein’s astonishing relativity theories remain crucial today, both embedded in objects in our daily lives and acting as a platform for our rapidly evolving understanding of the universe. And both aspects will be in view in the Celebrating Einstein series, which officially launches one month from today.
“The 100-year anniversary is a great occasion in itself, but we wanted to find the best ways to demonstrate not just that Einstein was a genius but what makes him relevant to the world today,” says Joe Diaz, a science educator who is organizing the series. For most of the Celebrating Einstein events, “you should have zero concern about understanding the physics that will be discussed,” he emphasizes.
Celebrating Einstein, which Diaz introduces here, kicks off with a panel of famous physicists Speaking of Einstein. “These speakers use relativity at a world-class level every day and also are very good at re-explaining and using creative metaphors to get across the gist of why Einstein is still so exciting,” says David Kaiser, an MIT physicist and science historian who will moderate the session.
“We are building on a series of events that colleagues of ours at Montana State University designed about two years ago,” says Kaiser, who spearheaded the move to bring Celebrating Einstein to Cambridge. “The folks in Montana were extremely thoughtful in designing these materials and extremely generous in sharing them with us.”
Another striking event is Black (W)hole, an interactive video art display. “A lot of the ideas in relativity are very visual; Einstein was a very visual thinker,” Kaiser notes. “Here’s a chance for a visual artist to work with physicists to try to get their basic sense as to how gravity warps space and time, and what might it be like to wander around in a space in which gravity is so extreme that things behave differently than what we’re used to.”
Among many other intriguing Celebrating Einstein happenings, check out A Shout Across Time, evening performances combining original choreography, an informal interview with a prominent physicist, and an original short film with original music played by a 30-piece orchestra. “This is all a way to get creative people to think about gravity and space and time in this way,” Kaiser says.
“Even people who have heard nothing about physics or don’t think they care will recognize the name Albert Einstein,” he points out. “He is probably the most well-known scientist celebrity in modern history, and we can use that to our advantage.”
“We all rely on the insights that are results of relativity in our everyday gadgetry,” Kaiser adds. “And the same set of equations, the same ideas that Einstein and others have labored over during the past century, also guide some of our most wild-sounding or speculative ideas about the entire universe. Do you like thinking about weird ideas about the universe? Well, we’ve got some stuff for you. Or, how did you get to the event today? You probably got here using your cell phone’s GPS. That’s an amazing range.”
Importantly, Celebrating Einstein also is fanning out into public schools around metropolitan Boston. Local physics students, postdocs and professors are delivering two interactive lessons, focused on spacetime concepts and the speed of light, in about 30 eighth-grade science classes.
“We can say to these students that all kinds of people can think about what it’s like for space to be curved, or for light to travel really quickly but not infinitely quickly,” Kaiser says. “We can agree that Einstein was pretty smart, but you don’t have to be Einstein to think about this stuff and enjoy the concepts.”