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Isaac Newton saw space and time as fixed, but in the new picture provided by special relativity and general relativity they were fluid and malleable. Who came up with the theory of relativity? Albert Einstein. He published the first part of his theory — special relativity — in the German physics journal Annalen der Physik in and completed his theory of general relativity only after another decade of difficult work. He presented the latter theory in a series of lectures in Berlin in late and published in the Annalen in Related What is special relativity?
The theory is based on two key concepts. As long as an object is moving in a straight line at a constant speed that is, with no acceleration , the laws of physics are the same for everyone. It can be hard to tell. Second, light travels at an unvarying speed of , miles a second. No matter how fast an observer is moving or how fast a light-emitting object is moving, a measurement of the speed of light always yields the same result.
Starting from these two postulates, Einstein showed that space and time are intertwined in ways that scientists had never previously realized.
Through a series of thought experiments, Einstein demonstrated that the consequences of special relativity are often counterintuitive — even startling. A page of the original manuscripts of the theory of relativity developed by Albert Einstein on display at the Israeli National Academy of Science and Humanities in Jerusalem on March 7, Get the mach newsletter. If your rocket speeds up, your mass and that of the rocket will increase.
The faster you go, the heavier things become and the more your rocket will resist your efforts to make it go faster. Einstein showed that nothing that has a mass can ever reach the speed of light. Because the speed of light is such a big number, even a tiny amount of mass is equivalent to — and can be converted into — a very large amount of energy.
What is general relativity? The basic idea is that instead of being an invisible force that attracts objects to one another, gravity is a curving or warping of space.
The more massive an object, the more it warps the space around it. Related mach The 7 biggest unanswered questions in physics For example, the sun is massive enough to warp space across our solar system — a bit like the way a heavy ball resting on a rubber sheet warps the sheet. As a result, Earth and the other planets move in curved paths orbits around it.
This warping also affects measurements of time. We tend to think of time as ticking away at a steady rate. But just as gravity can stretch or warp space, it can also dilate time. Subsequent experiments proved that this indeed happens. The equations involve nothing more complicated than high-school math. General relativity is more complicated. Tests of special and general relativity Over the last century, many experiments have confirmed the validity of both special and general relativity.
In the first major test of general relativity, astronomers in measured the deflection of light from distant stars as the starlight passed by our sun, proving that gravity does, in fact, distort or curve space.
A check of the timepieces after the planes landed showed that the clocks aboard the airliners were running a tiny bit slower than less than one millionth of a second than the clocks on the ground. In , the discovery of gravitational waves — subtle ripples in the fabric of spacetime — was another confirmation of general relativity.
Relativity in practice While the ideas behind relativity seem esoteric, the theory has had a huge impact on the modern world. Nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons, for example, would be impossible without the knowledge that matter can be transformed into energy.
Relativity for the Questioning Mind
What is relativity? Einstein's mind-bending theory explained