When it comes to scientists, one of the most recognized names in our world is that of Albert Einstein. Einstein, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921, is the creator of the theory of relativity which led to the prediction of amazing things such as deflection of light by gravity, gravitational lensing, black holes, gravitational waves, and the expanding universe, all of which have all been proven by many observations and experiments. Einstein ushered in a revolution in physics. He clearly was a genius, but in some aspects the way his mind worked was no different from that of any average human being.
Deflection of Light
Both Newton’s theory of gravitation and Einstein’s theory of relativity predicted that light would be deflected by a strong gravitational field, but Einstein’s theory predicted that light would be deflected by an amount roughly double of that predicted by Newton’s theory. In 1919 during a solar eclipse, it was observed that indeed light from stars close to the sun was deflected by an amount compatible with Einstein’s theory. This result, which made Einstein a worldwide sensation, has been verified with increasing accuracy many times since then. But what is less well known is that Einstein had originally made a calculation error which led him to find a deflection value no different from that predicted by Newton’s theory. This meant that the observation of the deflection of the light of stars by the sun would have disagreed with both theories. Thankfully, by the time the observation was made, Einstein had corrected his mistake, and the actual magnitude of the deflection agreed with his theory.
Einstein had figured out that, according to his theory of relativity, the strong magnetic field of a star could act as a lens and amplify the light of other distant stars behind it. But he realized the effect would be very small and fleeting, so did not deem it worthwhile publishing anything about it. However, in 1936 an amateur scientist named Rudi W. Mandl also figured out that this was one of the consequences of Einstein’s theory. He contacted Einstein who agreed the effect was indeed predicted by his theory and, after some pestering, consented to write an article about it. Einstein wrote the article acknowledging Mandl’s contribution, but stated in it that there is no chance of observing this phenomenon. At the time Einstein wrote this, he was thinking in terms of stars because the realization that there were distinct galaxies beyond our own was relatively new, and astronomers had not yet understood the real vastness of the universe. But astronomers eventually figured out that entire galaxies could act as gravitational lenses, and the first example of such a lens was discovered in 1979.
Another consequence of the theory of general relativity was the possibility of the existence of black holes, but Einstein was also dismissive of these entities, and he published an article in 1939 using his own theory to argue that black holes did not exist. In the decades after Einstein’s death in 1955, the evidence for the existence of black holes accrued until 2019 when a black hole was photographed for the first time.
Einstein’s theory of relativity included the possibility of the existence of gravitational waves, but he confided to some colleagues that he was skeptical about their existence or the possibility that they would ever be detected. He followed this by another article where he specifically examined the math behind such waves, but in this article, as was pointed out to him by other scientists, he made a calculation error. Two years later, he published another article where he corrected his previous error and finally laid down the correct mathematical framework for describing gravitational waves. However, Einstein remained skeptical about the reality of such waves.
Two decades later, in 1936, Einstein revisited the issue of gravitational waves in another article where he argued that the math really did not favor of the existence of such waves after all. He sent this article for publication in a science magazine, but the magazine sent the article to a reviewer who found a mistake in Einstein’s calculations. When Einstein redid the calculations, he found that the math did support the existence of gravitational waves after all! Still, the whole notion of the existence of gravitational waves was too outrageous for Einstein to accept. Untill the day of his death, he remained skeptical that these waves were anything but a mathematical construct, and even if they were real, he thought that they would be so faint that it would be impossible to detect them. The first gravitational waves were detected in 2015.
Expansion of the Universe
In 1917, Einstein wrote an article where he used his theory of general relativity to examine the universe. To his surprise, he found that the math indicated that the universe would expand forever. However, astronomical knowledge at the time indicated that the universe was supposed to be unchanging, so Einstein came up with a mathematical solution. He included a “cosmological constant” in the calculations, which prevented the universe from expanding forever. Other scientists challenged Einstein on this notion to the point that he conceded his original math without the constant was right, but he still doubted the reality of his conclusions. It was only after Edwin Hubble demonstrated in 1929 that the universe is indeed expanding that the prediction of Einstein’s theory were found to be right.
The above reveals how one of the greatest minds that humanity has ever seen worked. Einstein made mistakes. He was unsure about the implications of his theory. He changed his mind several times. He doubted or dismissed the existence of some of the very things that he is credited with predicting, and he sometimes even lacked the vision to imagine future realities.
This is how real science works and what real scientists are like. Science is messy. Scientists screw up. They vacillate, they change their minds, and sometimes they are unable to grasp the real consequences of the very things they propose. This IS normal, and is something that happens to everyone. But in the current poisoned climate where scientists on the “wrong” side of the culture wars are attacked for making mistakes, flip-flopping, or saying the wrong thing during an interview and so forth, one wonders if, for example, the discoveries that Einstein made would have been possible if he had been subjected to the scrutiny and slander that some scientists are subjected to nowadays.
The photograph of Albert Einstein by Orren Jack Turner obtained from the Library of Congress is in the public domain because it was published in the United States between 1923 and 1963 and the copyright was not renewed.
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