Ripples in the Cosmic Pond


I am now exclusively occupied with the problem of gravitation, and hope, with the help of a local mathematician friend, to overcome all the difficulties. One thing is certain, however, that never in my life have I been quite so tormented. A great respect for mathematics has been instilled within me, the subtler aspects of which, in my stupidity, I regarded until now as pure luxury. — Albert Einstein

The year was 1906. The previous year, Albert Einstein, a lowly examiner in the patent office of Bern, Switzerland, had laid five golden eggs in the form of scientific papers. Four of them revolutionized physics, catapulting Einstein, almost overnight, from obscurity into the first rank of physicists.

Einstein’s gift, observed science historian Jacob Bronowski, was the ability to ask “immensely simple questions”: questions that a child could ask but whose answers rock our understanding of reality.

One such question Einstein posited while yet in his teens: How would the world appear were I riding on a beam of light?

The question lingered and niggled at him on his tram rides to and from the patent office. Daily he passed Bern’s famous clock tower. “How would the clock appear,” he wondered, “if the tram receded from it at the speed of light?”

The answer — the clock would appear frozen in time — led to the special theory of relativity, casting “a wrinkle in time.” Time does not flow the same for all observers. Clocks tick differently for the traveler and the stay-at-home.

But in 1906, Einstein was working on a problem so daunting that, by comparison, special relativity was “child’s play.”

Inspiration came easily enough. Einstein’s “happiest thought” emerged as he mentally replayed Galileo’s experiments involving freely falling objects. Galileo had found, contrary to Aristotle, that dropped objects rush —> Read More