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Einstein’s General Relativity at 100: Put that in your pipe and smoke it

"I may have forgotten to carry the 2." Here's Albert Einstein at the chalkboard, being a genius. The photo was taken Dec. 28, 1934, at the Carnegie Institute of Technology Little Theater at Pittsburgh. (AP Photo)
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One of Washington’s temples of science is the Carnegie Institution, on 16th Street, and it was the appropriate spot Monday for an evening of Einstein worship. First came a screening of a new NOVA special, to be aired nationally on PBS on Wednesday, the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. Then came the obligatory panel discussion about Einstein, the nature of genius, government funding of science, and whether we’ll ever solve all the riddles of the universe.

There’s no question that Einstein solved a huge one, maybe as profound a riddle as there is. His General Theory redefined gravity as a kind of dance between matter and the fabric of space and time.

There’s a remarkably moving moment in the NOVA documentary that describes this eloquently. A scientist is at a blackboard upon which Einstein’s equation has been written in chalk (we learn, among other tidbits, that theoretical physics is still done largely with equations scrawled on blackboards). He is Robbert Dijkgraaf, director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where Einstein worked the last two decades of his life.

The most amazing part of the equation, Dijkgraaf says, is the equals sign, those two little parallel lines. Because the equation describes a two-way street.

“Matter tells space and time to curve. Space and time tell matter to move,” Dijkgraaf said.

And of course the even more amazing thing, which NOVA explains repeatedly, is that this is how the universe actually works, everywhere, from the dawn of time to today, in our solar system and in distant galaxies, and that all this was figured out by one guy, working largely in isolation.

And this wasn't even his first revolutionary idea. The Special Theory of Relativity came 10 years earlier, in 1905, when Einstein was a patent clerk in Bern, studying patents for timekeeping devices. The Special Theory obliterated the notion that there is a fixed moment in time or a fixed location in space. That year, Einstein produced four historic physics papers, including one that later earned him a Nobel Prize and played a role in the development of quantum theory.

“The power of an idea: If it’s correct, it’s unstoppable,” Dijkgraaf says at the end of the NOVA special.

He's just one of the many scientists and historians who pay homage to Einstein. The documentary also features an actor playing Young Einstein, and he spends a lot of his screen time just sitting with his eyes closed, or staring into space, engaging in “thought experiments.” Einstein’s science involved imagining trains pulling into stations, or people in elevators, or the chasing of a light beam.

The viewer might quibble that the actor spent a dismaying amount of time filling a pipe and smoking it. There are moments when this film threatens to turn into a tobacco commercial. After about the fourth or fifth time Einstein fills the pipe as he ponders the structure of space and time, the viewer will naturally wonder: What exactly is IN that pipe?

There are also some nifty special effects involving light beams, toy trains, lightning bolts, a little man in an elevator, black holes and the Big Bang.

In the panel discussion, Einstein biographer Walter Isaacson described Einstein as an anomaly: “Most science is a collaborative team sport.” University of Maryland physicist Jim Gates echoed that, and said that in today’s science environment, everyone is so connected by the Internet that the geniuses need to crunch massive data sets. Gates suggested that further probes of the basic nature of reality may reveal that “information is at the root of how this thing works.”

Gates also expressed concern about the rise of “anti-science” – the way that interested parties, when challenged by new evidence, try to undermine the scientific consensus. And Isaacson ended the evening bemoaning the dismantling of much of the post-World War II federal investment in basic scientific research.


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