Woe is us, right? The last thing we need to hear is that Einstein was a fake. Good news then. He wasn’t. But the next-to-last thing we need to hear is that the guy who “proved” Al’s general theory of relativity, astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington, was a fake. And that one’s dicier.
In a nutshell, if you will: The deal was a solar eclipse. The year, 1919. The fix, in. They’re saying Eddington’s measurements from the eclipse proved Einstein’s theory correct. “Newtonian Ideas Overthrown,” the Times screamed on November 7, pulling out a regal full-serif 96-point font, adding non-ho-humly: “New Theory of the Universe!” It’s not everyday …, you know? Before then, Einstein’s just another barberless physicist in the public’s eye. After, he’s an A-list celeb.
For the fact checkers out there, it’s possible I’m overstating it. Eddington, the prover, wasn’t really a fake. He was famously brilliant and well-respected at the time of said proof, and that’s something. But he wasn’t all good either. Not on purpose, I’m sure. How about “favorably inclined to read the evidence Einstein’s way”? The fabled “pre-existing beliefs” coloring his view.
Fine. So how’s it work?
What they do is they go out all over the world and set up telescopes to measure light deflection around the sun. Our guy Eddington—British, of course, because aren’t they always?—ships off to a West African island. Ask around and they’ll tell you that’s the place to watch an eclipse. Apparently. His partners make waves for coastal Brazil. So they have two places from which to match their data, which is good. Gives you science-guy cred.
Here’s the deal: Something about how much light bends because of gravitational fields says something about whether Newton or Einstein was right because of something about the speed of light. Honestly, it’s beyond me. But the answer, they’re saying, is some kind of number, like 1.6 seconds, how much of an arc it makes, which has to be damn hard to get exactly right from billions of miles away and possibly through clouds and at the right time of year and only once every so many decades and make sure your lenses aren’t too hot or cold, because that matters, and that your technicians aren’t dropouts or distracted debating which single kick-ass album they should’ve brought with them—_Dark Side of the Moon_ being the predictable but worthy front-runner—and don’t even get me started on if you had a pint that afternoon. And more to the point, you can’t ever check that stuff except during an eclipse, when it’s daytime and you can look around the sun.
And there it went. Eddington’s kicking back with his African telescope, the others with their Brazilian, and the moon’s about to block the sun. What matters to us, the ignorant, is that Eddington has already claimed he’s one of only two people in the world (Al being the other) who actually understand the general theory of relativity. This boasting is on record. Which is to say he’s already overconfident about the answer, of what should happen. He’s already keyed up for May 29, the big day, and he’s already calibrated the scope, for queen and country and all that.
The eclipse goes off without a so-called hitch. He snaps 16 shots. But only two are worthwhile, because of weather and clarity and so on. Neither was dead on to that 1.6 answer, but the average of the two was just about right. That seemed decent. Brazil gets eight good shots, but 18 not good ones. And they don’t lean to the Newton or Einstein side definitively. So, on the downswing, there’s a lot of “My word” and “Quite so” going around.
Well, back home, the Great War’s just finished, mustard gas still tingling on the lips of teenagers far and wide, and Einstein’s given up the comb for 15 years already. He couldn’t care less about the results. You may have heard: he was fairly unflappable. His 1905 papers on the theory of relativity were already accepted by most physicists. It’s really only the public acclaim that awaited him. He was on to other things, like unified field theories, God and dice, Zelda Fitzgerald. Everyday things.
Eddington, on the other hand, is a tad overexcited. He gets back to town and hands the data over to the quizzical chums at the Royal Society. “Hmm,” says Niles. “Ahhh,” says Angus. “I do say.” They’re keeping the eight pro-Einstein measurements, throwing out the 18 maybe-pro-Newton ones, and equivocating on the two others. By the time the Times gets the report, Eddington’s convinced everyone it’s Einstein in a romp.
The gist here, if that’s what we’re after, being: Make sure you’re already a famous and credible astronomer if you want people to believe you. You can’t break into this secrets-of-the-universe and space-time-continuum business right off.