Einstein and The Pursuit of Knowledge

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A century ago, Albert Einstein presented his general theory of relativity to the world. His ideas were grounded in the theory of gravity developed by Sir Isaac Newton 250 years earlier. Einstein showed that Newton's theory did not completely describe gravity's behavior throughout the universe.

To demonstrate his theory, Einstein used it to compute a small deviation in Mercury's orbit that Newton could not explain. Einstein also predicted that a beam of light's straight path would bend  as it approached a massive object, like a star. His prediction was confirmed during a solar eclipse in 1919. While impressive, Einstein's theory provided no immediate practical applications. However, almost 50 years later that would change.

In the 1960s, the military developed prototypes for our modern GPS systems that allow us to pinpoint our location to within a few yards. This technology wouldn't exist without Einstein's theory. Because of the interplay between space, time and motion, clocks in GPS satellites tick off faster than those on the Earth. This discrepancy isn't because orbiting clocks don't work correctly. It's because, according to Einstein, the fabric of space and time is different above the Earth than on it.

The centennial of Einstein's revolutionary theory reminds me of the importance of our colleges and universities. Yes, they educate students, but they also serve as repositories of human culture and incubators of new knowledge.  If a profit-focused research and development operation rather than a university had hired Einstein, it's unlikely he would have developed his general theory of relativity. He was able to dedicate ten years of intellectual effort to this work only because of the university environment he worked in. As we debate the return on investment of our universities, let's not overlook their unique contributions. Let's be sure all of our future great minds have places to do their thinking.

With a Perspective, I'm Roy Wensley.


Roy Wensley is the Dean of Science and a Professor of Physics at St. Mary's College in Moraga.