Introduction to special issue

Einstein's vision

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Science  06 Mar 2015:
Vol. 347, Issue 6226, pp. 1082-1083
DOI: 10.1126/science.347.6226.1082

Shapes of distant galaxies in this image from the Hubble Space Telescope are warped by the mass of a galaxy cluster closer to Earth—a distortion predicted by general relativity.

PHOTO: NASA, ESA, THE HUBBLE HERITAGE TEAM (STSCI/AURA), J. BLAKESLEE (NRC HERZBERG ASTROPHYSICS PROGRAM, DOMINION ASTROPHYSICAL OBSERVATORY), AND H. FORD (JHU)

Sitting at a desk or toiling alone in a laboratory for years, until—eureka!—insight dawns. That's the myth of how science is done. And it's almost always wrong. In reality, scientific progress comes incrementally, most researchers work in teams, and lone geniuses do not hand the world revolutionary new theories.

But Albert Einstein did.

This 2 December will mark the 100th anniversary of the publication—in four short pages—of Einstein's general theory of relativity, to this day physicists' fundamental theory of gravity. Governing the universe on the largest scales, general relativity stands with quantum mechanics, which reigns on the smallest scales, as a foundation stone of modern physics. But whereas quantum theory was the achievement of many—de Broglie, Bohr, Heisenberg, Schrödinger, Born, Dirac—general relativity leapt fully formed from Einstein's mind.

In concocting the theory, Einstein relied on thought experiments—as he had in developing the special theory of relativity, published in 1905, which showed that space and time are fungible aspects of a single spacetime. In inventing special relativity, Einstein imagined surfing a light wave; for general relativity, he envisioned walking off a roof. Through such musings Einstein realized that gravity is merely the bending of spacetime by mass and energy.

A century later, that insight underpins cutting-edge physics: searching for gravitational waves, probing the extreme gravity near the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, tracing the origin of the universe. This special issue celebrates the singular achievement that made it all possible.

  • Adrian Cho and Daniel Clery also edited this special issue.

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