Einstein: The Man and The Genius

Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity Was Initially Met With a Universal Eye-Roll

Everyone has heard of Albert Einstein's special theory of relativity. Just imagine the universal explosion of praise that happened when he published this momentous work of science! Then stop imagining. Whatever you're thinking, it probably went nothing like that.

Albert Einstein in his office at the University of Berlin, 1920.

Why People Didn't Believe Einstein

When Einstein published his paper on special relativity in 1905, the reception wasn't exactly warm. His paper talks about "ether," a theoretical substance that was then accepted as the stuff space is made of, mostly because its existence helped the equations work out. As JSTOR Daily reports, "Einstein argued that space and time were bound up together (something he would elaborate on in his theory of general relativity of 1915, adding gravity to the mix of space/time), a complicated idea that contradicted the long-held belief in something called ether. [...] Einstein's theory noted there was no experimental confirmation for the substance. There was no proof it existed, other than that the scientific establishment had accepted the concept."

Change is hard. For years after Einstein put his contradiction of ether out into the world, Germany remained the only place it was really taken seriously. In Britain, the idea fell on deaf ears. (Britain was, after all, where the idea of ether originated.) In France, Einstein's work wasn't really even considered until after he visited the country in 1910. A few understood it in the U.S. but generally considered it impractical and absurd. What made Germany different? According to scholar Stanley Goldberg, "Many German physicists opposed Einstein's theory, but it is only in Germany that its opponents understood it [...] It was the seriousness of the German response, in my view, which ultimately led to the acceptance of relativity, for it insured that the theory would be examined, criticized, and elaborated upon."

What Does His Theory Actually Say?

Besides denying the existence of ether, Einstein's special and general theories of relativity helped modern science take a grand leap in its understanding of the universe. Nola Taylor Redd at Space.com does a wonderful job of summing up both theories: "In 1905, Albert Einstein determined that the laws of physics are the same for all non-accelerating observers, and that the speed of light in a vacuum was independent of the motion of all observers. This was the theory of special relativity. It introduced a new framework for all of physics and proposed new concepts of space and time. Einstein then spent 10 years trying to include acceleration in the theory and published his theory of general relativity in 1915. In it, he determined that massive objects cause a distortion in space-time, which is felt as gravity."

Even more impressive, the theories Einstein worked out on paper have since been confirmed with experimental evidence. Regardless of how scientists considered them at the time, Einstein's theories about space and time have proven to be the most accurate we have so far.

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To get a better understanding of everybody's favorite genius, check out the biography "Einstein: His Life and Universe" by Walter Isaacson. The audiobook is free with a trial of Audible. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Einstein and the Special Theory of Relativity

Written by Ashley Hamer January 17, 2017

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