I’m getting a bit carried away with Einstein here, but he is one of my heroes, and the Special Theory of Relativity was only a start. Eleven years later, he completed his General Theory of Relativity, based on another very simple, but very deep, “What if?” question. What if one were standing in a closed lift, and the lift started to accelerate upwards. Could one tell whether the increased force that one felt through the feet was due to upwards acceleration, or whether the lift was in fact stationary, with the increased force being due to a sudden increase in downward gravitational pull?
You couldn’t. But from the fact that you couldn’t Einstein was able to write down a new set of equations that showed (among other things) that light beams would bend in a gravitational field, and that space itself was curved. These conclusions have now also been confirmed experimentally, and form the underpinning of modern astrophysics.
It was all too much for some people, especially in the atmosphere that was then developing in Germany, and in 1931 a book appeared “A Hundred Authors Against Einstein.” It’s a marvelous read, and a real curiosity in the history of science. Very few of the authors knew much about the theory, and those that did had some very weird criticisms (one simply said “it is not to my taste”). When Einstein heard about the “100 authors”, he commented mildly “one would have been enough,” which accurately describes how science should really work, and also displays another of Einstein’s characteristics – his modesty.
There is much more to be said about Einstein’s contributions to science, and about the politics which meant that he never received a Nobel Prize for his Theories of Relativity (see http://ysfine.com/einstein/einnobel.html for a great discussion of the infighting that went on in the Nobel Prize committee). He did receive a Nobel Prize, but it was for quite another discovery. But that’s a subject for a future post.