Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity is arguably his greatest contribution to science and human history, and it all got started on this day just over 100 years ago with a little paper titled, “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies.”
That’s not exactly the most ostentatious title, but then again, you’re probably not going to call your paper something like “The Paper That Will Change Science Forever, Please Read,” are you?
General vs. special relativity
Though Einstein is better known today for the concept of general relativity, the paper published on September 26, 1905, was on its predecessor and cousin, special relativity. Based on earlier work from scientists and famous math nerds like Hermann Minkowski and Albert Michelson, Einstein’s theory filled some major cracks in earlier works of Isaac Newton which at that time comprised the foundation of everything we knew about science.
By the way, Einstein was 26 at the time.
Special relativity is based on two concepts. One, that the laws of physics don’t change regardless of how fast you’re moving, and two, that the speed of light is the same for everyone regardless of its source or the motion of its observers.
Too long; didn’t read
This sounds pretty “duh” for all of us now because we learned about it in high school, but this theory was incredibly groundbreaking at the time and has had implications for everything from GPS systems to how our TVs work. For sci-fi junkies, a lot of the science-esque jargon you hear in movies about lightspeed and such wouldn’t exist without special relativity.
Einstein’s special relativity wasn’t a slam dunk right away. A lot of his peers criticized the paper, accusing Einstein of engaging in pseudoscience and of being ideologically motivated.
Back to the drawing board
If it bothered Einstein, it didn’t really show. He was back to work on a successor theory of general relativity by 1907 and published his findings in 1916.
The criticism of relativity didn’t really hold up to scrutiny, and it eventually became accepted by the vast majority of the scientific community. By the 1920s, special relativity became an essential tool in understanding physics.
General relativity, for its part, was WAY ahead of its time and didn’t really start to catch on until the 60s, 70s, and 80s when we started getting interested in the gravitational/time-distortion effects of black holes.