The year 2015 marks an important milestone in the history of physics: the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity (published November 25, 1915), which redefined human understanding of space, time and gravity.
The Einstein Centenary is being celebrated as the International Year of Light 2015, and to help build public understanding of relativity and its impact on our lives, Colorado astrophysicist and educator Dr. Jeffrey Bennett has embarked on a yearlong “Relativity Tour.” The tour has had sold-out shows across the country, and is coming to San Antonio on September 18 at 7:30pm, hosted by Friends of UTSA Astronomy.
Dr. Bennett tells us more about The Relativity Tour:
What compelled you to traverse the country discussing relativity?
Most people assume that Einstein’s theory of relativity is beyond their comprehension, so they find it empowering to realize that it’s actually based upon simple ideas that anyone can understand. Moreover, the ideas of relativity change the way we view ourselves as human beings in a vast universe, so learning these ideas opens your mind in new and unexpected ways. I’ve chosen to embark on the tour during this 100th anniversary of general relativity, because I believe it’s time to take Einstein’s ideas out of the realm of obscure science and into the realm of general public consciousness.
Okay then, so, what is relativity?
Nearly everyone has heard of Einstein’s theory of relativity, perhaps because it is so prevalent in popular culture. For example, relativity lies behind real science ideas like black holes and the expanding universe, and also behind science fiction ideas of things like warp drive (Star Trek), hyperspace (Star Wars), and worm holes (the movie Contact has a great example of this). The reason it comes up in these contexts is that the theory of relativity represents our current understanding of the nature of space, time and gravity. As such, it provides the foundation of almost all of modern physics and astronomy, which means it also plays a critical role in modern technology. To sum up, relativity tells us how the universe actually works, and through technology it comes up in nearly everything we do in our daily lives.
Why should ordinary people care about Einstein’s ideas now, 100 years after they were discovered?
Einstein’s ideas have been important to everyone for a long time, but unfortunately very few people have ever had a chance to learn about them. So their 100th anniversary seems as good a time as any to try to bring more people up to speed. As to why people should care, I like to focus on four particular reasons:
1. Einstein’s theories underlie nearly all of modern science and technology; for example, modern electronics, nuclear power and even your GPS navigation all rely on them. This means that unless you know something about relativity, then you are using technology without understanding it — and while you are free to do this, I think it’s always better if you understand the tools that you use.
2. As I mentioned earlier, relativity provides our current understanding of the nature of space, time and gravity, and this nature turns out be somewhat different than we would expect from everyday life. So if you really want to understand what it means to be a human being, living on a planet that orbits a star in a vast universe, then you have to first understand the ideas of relativity.
3. Relativity is astounding in both its implications and its basic simplicity, which I think makes Einstein’s work a shining example of what human beings can do when we put our minds to work for positive things rather than negative things.
4. Relativity shows that there’s a permanence to what we call “spacetime” that, in my opinion, ought to affect they way we all behave toward one another; in fact, I think if everyone understood the ideas of relativity, we’d live in a better and more peaceful world.
Dr. Bennett’s tour presentations are based on his book What is Relativity? An Intuitive Introduction to Einstein’s Ideas and Why They Matter (Columbia University Press, 2014).
What: The Relativity Tour with Dr. Jeffrey Bennett
When: Friday, September 18 at 7:30pm
Where: University of Texas at San Antonio, Science Building, Main (1604) Campus, Main Building 0.104, One UTSA Circle, San Antonio, Texas 78249
By Elena Meredith