Albert Einstein, the wire-haired physicist, whose worked reshaped our understanding of the universe, is a household name—but that wasn't always the case.
Before 1919, only a handful of scientists knew of Einstein's pivotal work, and fewer still supported it. If not for the effort of a small group of British scientists, who recognized Einstein's genius and determined to push past war and stigma, we may never have learned of humanity's most important achievement.
But on November 6, 1919, British scientist Arthur Stanley Eddington would change the course of Einstein's life forever.
The Theory That Changed Everything
In 1916, Einstein had published the mathematical details for his general theory of relativity, in which he proposed that light and time could be bent or deflected by the gravitational field of massive objects in the universe, like the sun. Sir Isaac Newton had made similar claims in his 1704 treatise, Optiks, but he wasn’t able to quantitatively prove this phenomenon. A century later, German mathematician Johann Georg von Soldner published the first calculations quantifying Newton’s work in 1804.
But Einstein took Newton's original claims a step further. Instead, he proposed that this phenomenon occurred not because of a specific force but because of curvature in space—much like how placing a heavy weight in the center of a mattress causes it to sag, pulling any object rolled across it toward the center. He suggested that the values at which light deflected would be much higher than others, including Newton, anticipated.
When Einstein submitted his work on general relativity for publication, he warned publishers that “there were not more than twelve persons in the whole world who would understand it,” The New York Times reported in 1919.
He left the task of proving his theory correct to other scientists, and that opportunity would arrive three years later.
Science During World War
World War I had cast Europe into an economic and academic winter. Lines of communications between countries were severed, and there was little time for discussion of space-gravity and cosmology. The scientific community had been splintered, and Einstein was trapped behind the curtain of war. Despite his opposition to the war, Einstein’s work was shunned by other scientists across Europe.
But Arthur Stanley Eddington, a British astronomer, physicist and mathematician, and British Astronomer Royal Frank Watson Dyson became transfixed with Einstein’s theories. When they managed to get a copy of the Swiss-German physicist’s work on general relativity, they knew they had come across something that would change the course of history.
Eddington, in particular, made it his mission to prove Einstein’s controversial theory. Together, he and Dyson began a correspondence with Einstein that would nearly cost them their jobs and their freedom. Correspondence between citizens of Britain and German was strictly prohibited.
Eddington was already in a difficult position, as a Quaker who was strongly opposed to war, he had fought draft orders on multiple occasions. Dyson, in a position of power and influence, pulled strings and managed to keep his colleague out of harm’s way.
Dyson saw that there would be an opportunity to prove Einstein’s work in 1919: a solar eclipse would sweep across the Atlantic. But an expedition could not be mounted during the war, as supplies and funds were needed on the front line. Safe passage across the Atlantic wasn’t a guarantee.
Luckily, fate was in their favor. In 1918, a ceasefire was announced and an armistice was signed between the allied countries and Germany. The war was over, and Dyson, Eddington, and Andrew Crommelin of the Royal Greenwich Observatory in London formalized plans for an expedition.
Chasing a Total Eclipse
In the spring of 1919, two teams—funded by Dyson and led by Eddington and Crommelin—set out by sea: one ship travelled to Príncipe, a small island off the coast of West Africa, and the other to Sobral, a small town along the northern coast of Brazil. Both locations fell along the path of the eclipse, which would sweep west to east across the Pacific Ocean.
As the sun swept across the sky that day, it would pass in front of a bright cluster of stars, the Hyades, in the Taurus constellation. When the sun reached totality, those stars would be visible along the the sun’s glowing halo. Eddington would chart their location on photographic plates and compare their position to measurements taken when the sun wasn’t near them. Any shift in the position of these stars caused by the sun’s gravitational field would signify that Einstein was correct.
On May 29, 2019, as the moon dove in front of the sun, casting the world into six minutes of darkness, both teams set their telescopes toward the sun—but misfortune struck. In Príncipe, Eddington’s team was met with poor weather. He wasn’t able to get nearly the amount of images that he wanted. A strike put on by steamship workers forced him to pack up his equipment early. He would have to wait months to analyze the photographs he took.
In Brazil, the tropical heat had warped the metal in their large telescopes. Instead, the team, led by Crommelin was forced to use a much smaller, 10-centimeter telescope. Despite these challenges, they got the data they needed.
A brief analysis of the results in Brazil revealed that the position of the Hyades did, in fact, shift, meaning that the rays of light the stars projected were bending around the sun. This shift also aligned more closely with Einstein’s predictions than Newton’s. Months of rigorous analysis back in Britain further confirmed his work.
A Scientific Revolution
On November 6, Eddington presented the results of his expedition to a crowded room at the Royal Society and the Royal Astronomical Society in London. His presentation thrust Einstein from relative obscurity to international celebrity overnight. At the time, Eddington called this his life’s greatest achievement: "I knew that Einstein's theory had stood the test and the new outlook of scientific thought must prevail."
When Einstein, who was bedridden and ravaged by wartime hunger, learned of the success via telegram, he was delighted. The next day, his face was splashed across newspapers around the world. The Times of London’s headline read: “Revolution in science NEW THEORY OF THE UNIVERSE: NEWTONIAN IDEAS OVERTHROWN.”
They called it the “most remarkable scientific event” since the discovery of Neptune in 1846.
Days later, The New York Times followed up with a six-headline column heralding the discovery.
“Enough has been said to show the importance of Einstein’s theory, even if it cannot be expressed clearly in words," Sir Joseph Thomson, president of the Royal Society, told The Times. Another astronomer, Dr. W. J. S. Lockyer, assured the public that while the results were important, they “do not personally concern ordinary human beings.”
But the public was fascinated and would not be deterred by the complicated nature of Einstein’s work. His theories, and the discoveries that proved them, sparked a worldwide fascination in astronomy and physics and ushered in the era of modern physics.
When he arrived in the U.S. in 1921, more than 5,000 revelers greeted him as he stepped off the steamship Rotterdam. Throngs of reporters trailed the scientist wherever he went, and lecture series he gave across the U.S. and Europe left attendees overflowing into the streets.
Einstein's theories of special and general relativity play a more significant role in our lives than one might suspect. GPS technology, for example, which relies on ultra-precise timekeeping, draws on both theories when calculating the coordinates of a given location. Enjoy using electricity? You can thank Einstein.
Over 100 years later, his theories still stand, and a number of scientists have since reaffirmed his work. In 2018, a research team proved an important component of his theory: that gravity works the same in other galaxies as it does here.
After November 6, 1919, Einstein would never escape the spotlight. A humble man, he often shied away from this unbridled celebrity. The bright light of fame would not bend.
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