Black Hole: How an Idea Abandoned by Newtonians, Hated by Einstein, and Gambled on by Hawking Became Loved
The Hunt for Vulcan: ...And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe
Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid
God said, Let Newton be!—and
all was light.
It did not last: the devil, shouting
Let Einstein be,” restored the
—Alexander Pope, with a continuation by J.C. Squire
On Thursday, November 25, 1915, Albert Einstein, no longer a patent clerk and by then a respected university professor, presented his fourth and final lecture in a series at the Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin. Titled “The Field Equations of Gravitation,” this lecture, or at least the ideas it contained, completely overhauled our conception of gravity. Einstein proposed a fundamental rethinking of the nature of space, time, and matter. He redrew our cosmic map in a radical transformation, the likes of which had never happened before—or since.
Of course an established scientific model is often called into question when scientists obtain more accurate or new observational or experimental data that do not fit the accepted theory. Most often these mismatches bring about relatively small refinements in the understanding of phenomena. Take, for example, the case of nineteenth-century measurements of deviations in the orbit of the planet Uranus from the trajectory expected from Newton and Kepler’s seventeenth-century laws. Using mathematical calculations, the French astronomer Urbain Le Verrier predicted the cause to be the existence of a hidden, perturbing gravitating body lurking nearby. Within months, the young astronomer Johann Gottfried Galle searched for and detected the planet Neptune in 1846. Newton’s laws remained intact.
Later, when more accurate measurements of the motion of the planet Mercury also revealed a tiny, almost imperceptible wobble, Le Verrier attempted to use the same solution to resolve the discrepancy. He predicted the existence of another new planet, Vulcan, orbiting uncomfortably between the sun and Mercury. This time, the search was futile. As it turns out, it would be Einstein who would end up explaining Mercury’s wobble.
Very rarely in science, there are instances when the anomalous data lead not to small refinements but to an entirely new theory. To say that was the case with Mercury’s wobble would be misleading. Einstein certainly did not set out to explain Mercury’s orbital anomaly, but he did. Einstein developed the entire theory…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.