Physicist and physics historian David Kaiser spoke to KSJ Fellows about how culture and politics altered the fate of Einstein’s theory of general relativity.
When LIGO announced the detection of gravitational waves to the world in 2016, it was the discovery of a lifetime, hailed as the ultimate confirmation of a prediction made by Einstein’s theory of general relativity more than one hundred years earlier.
David Kaiser, both a physicist and a historian of physics at MIT, spoke to KSJ fellows and guests last week about the history of how Einstein’s theory traveled through the world, from the mind of a single man bound by his circumstances, to the subject of a billion-dollar experiment carried out a century later.
Kaiser argued that Einstein’s theory, which was otherworldly in nature – the stretching of space, the expansion of the universe – was very much tethered to the earth, its movement and adoption by the scientific community restricted by war and political ideology. This history tells us that scientific progress is not a series of eureka moments, but rather a product of the time, place, and culture of the messy human lives that endeavor to push it forward.
The story starts in November of 1915, when Einstein first described his new theory in a series of presentations to the Prussian Academy of Science. Gravity is not a separate force, he told them. Gravity is simply a matter of geometry. A large planetary object, such as a star, bends the shape of space-time, and the paths of neighboring bodies respond to this distortion.
The idea was revolutionary, but the timing was terrible. As Kaiser put it, November of 1915 in Germany was pretty chaotic, to say the least. It being a little over a year into World War I, Einstein’s ability to travel and spread his ideas was restricted. He could lecture only within certain countries and correspond only with German colleagues. His theory of relativity spread across borders almost by luck: by a Russian scientist who happened to be detained in Göttingen during the war, where Einstein often lectured; by a Dutch mathematician who trained under Einstein in the Netherlands (a neutral country) and then sent long letters describing the theory to an English astronomer. The Englishman, Arthur Eddington, was ultimately able to confirm Einstein’s theory with an experiment during a solar eclipse in 1919, making Einstein a worldwide celebrity, overnight.
This is just one small fraction of the drama that played out over the course of the century that eventually led to LIGO. Kaiser told several other tales of how Einstein’s theory moved through the world, coming in and out of fashion, and influencing developments in other areas of science along the way, like military defense, the hydrogen bomb, and computing.
Kaiser is writing a book on the political history of gravity, and argues that science is and always has been political. The conversation turned to nuclear weapons research, and to the scientists involved in the hydrogen bomb who later became antinuclear activists. KSJ fellow Amina Khan brought up self-policing, saying that because journalists are not experts, they rely on the scientific community to check itself, to have dissidents and people who say, “you’re thinking about this the wrong way,” or “your idea is racist.” The history of nuclear weapons shows us that sometimes the process of correction takes time, and damage can be done in the interim.
Kaiser said that today, he worries more about the potentially harmful uses of biology. “To make really bad stuff happen biologically, you need this much bench space,” he said, pinching his fingers an inch apart. With nuclear physics, they needed an entire national laboratory, computers that filled the room, four thousand people, billion-dollar budgets. “Bad stuff happened there, but it was hard to go rogue.”
“Self-censorship sounds nice, but we all have our blinkers and our blinders, our limited horizons,” he said. “Even very smart people who dearly want to do right are gonna miss a lot of stuff because they’re coming from one perspective. Let’s not put all our faith in a glorious self-correcting system.”