The Eclipse That Revealed the Universe

General relativity was so obviously true, he said later, that if it had been up to him he wouldn’t have bothered trying to prove it.

But it wasn’t up to him, due to a quirk of history. Eddington was also a Quaker and so had refused to be drafted into the army. His boss, Frank Dyson, the Astronomer Royal of Britain, saved Eddington from jail by promising that he would undertake an important scientific task, namely the expedition to test the Einstein theory.

Eddington also hoped to help reunite European science, which had been badly splintered by the war, Germans having been essentially disinvited from conferences. Now, an Englishman was setting off to prove the theory of a German, Einstein.

According to Einstein’s final version of the theory, completed in 1915, as their light rays curved around the sun during an eclipse, stars just grazing the sun should appear deflected from their normal positions by an angle of about 1.75 second of arc, about a thousandth of the width of a full moon.

According to old-fashioned Newtonian gravity, starlight would be deflected by only half that amount, 0.86 second, as it passed the sun during an eclipse.

A second of arc is about the size of a star as it appears to the eye under the best and calmest of conditions from a mountaintop observatory. But atmospheric turbulence and optical exigencies often smudge the stars into bigger blurs.

So Eddington’s job, as he saw it, was to ascertain whether a bunch of blurs had been nudged off their centers by as much as Einstein had predicted, or half that amount — or none at all. It was Newton versus Einstein.

No pressure there.

And what if Eddington measured twice the Einstein deflection?, Dyson was asked by Edwin Cottingham, one of the astronomers on the expedition. “Then Eddington will go mad and you will come home alone,” Dyson answered.

To improve the chances of success, two teams were sent: Eddington and Cottingham to the island of Principe, off the coast of Africa, and Charles Davidson and Andrew Crommelin to Sobral, a city in Brazil. The fail-safe strategy almost didn’t work.

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What Is General Relativity?

Einstein presented his general theory of relativity 100 years ago this month.


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