A thrilling history of the development of the theory of relativity, “one of the essential pillars upholding our understanding of the universe.”
Despite Einstein’s sole billing, this outstanding history/biography gives equal billing to Arthur Eddington (1882-1944), the British astronomer who championed relativity. This year is the 100th anniversary of the year when proof of his theory, largely engineered by Eddington, made Einstein (1879-1955) a scientific superstar. In his first book for a general audience, Stanley (History of Science/New York Univ. Gallatin School of Individualized Study; Huxley's Church and Maxwell's Demon: From Theistic Science to Naturalistic Science, 2014, etc.) chronicles the creation and acceptance of relativity against a background of the nasty nationalism of World War I. The author reminds readers that in 1905, Einstein described special relativity, a brilliant explanation of space, time, and motion. However, it did not explain accelerated motion, which includes gravity. Fixing that required years of labor, but Einstein succeeded in 1915 with general relativity. Einstein was a rare scientist among the warring nations who rejected often hateful patriotism. Eddington was another. Born a Quaker, he was a prodigy who studied at Cambridge and became a distinguished astronomer. As conscientious objectors, British Quakers suffered vicious persecution during the war, and it was only through the efforts of his superiors that he was spared. Eddington learned about relativity through a Dutch astronomer; intrigued, he became its leading British advocate. Few colleagues showed interest in theories of an obscure enemy scientist, but this did not prevent Eddington from initiating plans, even as the war raged, for the famous 1919 eclipse expedition. The author excels in explaining its surprisingly complex details, the tedious work required to tease out the minuscule bending of starlight that obeyed Einstein’s prediction, and the still stunning explosion of adulation that resulted when results were announced.
Stanley gives history priority over science. His explanation of general relativity will be a stretch for readers unfamiliar with college physics, but he delivers a superb account of Edison’s and Eddington’s spectacularly successful struggles to work and survive under miserable wartime conditions.