What Is Relativity?

What Is Relativity?

The meaning of relativity has been widely misunderstood. Philosophers play with the word, like a child with a doll. Relativity, as I see it, merely denotes that certain physical and mechanical facts, which have been regarded as positive and permanent, are relative with regard to certain other facts in the sphere of physics and mechanics. It does not mean that everything in life is relative and that we have the right to turn the whole world mischievously topsy-turvy.

- Albert Einstein, What Life Means to Einstein: An Interview by George Sylvester Viereck (1929)

Podcast of the Day

Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss Einstein's theories of relativity. Between 1905 and 1917 Albert Einstein formulated a theoretical framework which transformed our understanding of the Universe. The twin theories of Special and General Relativity offered insights into the nature of space, time and gravitation which changed the face of modern science. Relativity resolved apparent contradictions in physics and also predicted several new phenomena, including black holes. It's regarded today as one of the greatest intellectual achievements of the twentieth century, and had an impact far beyond the world of science.

Listen to the In Our Time episode on Relativity

Video of the Day

Short Article of the Day

One hundred years ago this month, an obscure German physicist named Albert Einstein presented to the Prussian Academy of Science his General Theory of Relativity. Nothing prior had prepared scientists for such a radical re-envisioning of the foundations of reality.

Encoded in a set of neat compact equations was the idea that our universe is constructed from a sort of magical mesh, now known as “spacetime”. According to the theory, the structure of this mesh would be revealed in the bending of light around distant stars.

To everyone at the time, this seemed implausible, for physicists had long known that light travels in straight lines. Yet in 1919 observations of a solar eclipse revealed that on a cosmic scale light does bend, and overnight Einstein became a superstar...

Continue reading Margaret Wertheim's article: The art and beauty of general relativity

Further Reading

The theory of relativity usually encompasses two interrelated theories by Albert Einstein: special relativity and general relativity. Special relativity applies to elementary particles and their interactions, describing all their physical phenomena except gravity. General relativity explains the law of gravitation and its relation to other forces of nature. It applies to the cosmological and astrophysical realm, including astronomy.

The theory transformed theoretical physics and astronomy during the 20th century, superseding a 200-year-old theory of mechanics created primarily by Isaac Newton. It introduced concepts including spacetime as a unified entity of space and time, relativity of simultaneity, kinematic and gravitational time dilation, and length contraction. In the field of physics, relativity improved the science of elementary particles and their fundamental interactions, along with ushering in the nuclear age. With relativity, cosmology and astrophysics predicted extraordinary astronomical phenomena such as neutron stars, black holes, and gravitational waves...

Continue reading the Wikipedia article on the Theory of Relativity

Bonus Webcomic

Related Topics

If you’re interested in the theory of relativity, check out some of the following related topics for more resources:

 Astrophysics | Black Holes | Quantum Mechanics | String Theory | Time

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