Watch: Swarthmore Faculty Celebrate Einstein's Theory of Relativity

This fall, the Aydelotte Foundation supported "Sound Breaks: The Gravity of the Situation," a roundtable discussion celebrating 100 years of Einstein’s theory of general relativity. An outgrowth of the event organized by ethnomusicologist Mark Lomanno last spring, this new iteration of Sound Breaks featured discussion between faculty members on their interest in and reaction to Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Among the discussions were unique performances, including a staged scene from Steve Martin's play, Picasso at the Lapin Agile. In this excerpt from the event, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of English Literature Peter Schmidt discusses the scene's relevance to the topic and participates in the reading.

Many institutions celebrated this milestone in modern physics, but Swarthmore took the opportunity to celebrate it from diverse viewpoints and within the context of the liberal arts. There are many points of intersection between Einstein’s achievement and a wide range of other disciplines. Einstein’s theory of general relativity took his theory of special relativity and applied it to the inner-workings of gravity, transforming the push and pull of action at a distance to the geometric picture of curved surfaces. The concepts of "relativity" and of "gravity" clearly resonate in other fields. In addition to this, Einstein’s achievement was an act of imagination, persistence, and profound creativity—it is a human act and as such must be examined and celebrated from a diverse set of viewpoints. 

In addition to Schmidt and Lomanno, the panel featured Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion Helen Plotkin '77, Associate Professor of Philosophy Alan Baker, Professor of Astronomy David Cohen, and Assistant Professor of Dance Jumatatu Poe '04, and was facilitated by Assistant Professor of Physics Tristan Smith. Read below for an excerpt from Tristan Smith's introduction: 

100 years ago, in November 1915, Einstein wrote four papers which reworked the concept of gravitational pull into the geometrical effect of the warping and stretching of space itself. Contained within his framework is the existence of black holes, the origin and expansion of the universe and the physical nature of space and time. At the beginning of his journey, in 1905, Einstein proposed that the three dimensions of space be combined with time into a four dimensional spacetime. In words this may sound trivial, but the implications are profound. One of the implications is that our experience of time, as divided into past, present, and future may be purely illusion: in spacetime everything just is, nothing changes, and we are forced to recognize the physical world as a world of being devoid of our experience of becoming. 

Einstein was famous for using ‘thought experiments’ to make his points. It was one of these thought experiments which lead Einstein to develop his theory of gravity.  On the surface of the earth it is obvious that objects fall towards the ground. We usually understand this by saying that the earth remains still and the ball accelerates downward.  Now imagine we are in a rocket far from the earth which is accelerating upward.  We let go of the ball— we will see the ball accelerate towards the floor, but now the situation is reversed! Now the ball remains still and it is the floor that accelerates upwards to meet the ball! This simple flip lead Einstein to propose that gravity and acceleration are equivalent. This is the basis of his theory of gravity. There is a beautiful simplicity in such an idea— an "inescapable charm."  Einstein called it “the happiest thought in my life.”  This was in 1907. 

Eight years later, in November 1915, Einstein publishes his four papers— one each week.  These papers lay bare Einstein's creative process, a rare look into the meandering path all creative acts trace. On November 24th Einstein reaches his final statement of his theory— an equation. We’ve been unpacking this equation for over the last 100 years. In it we can ‘see’ black holes: regions of empty space so curved that light itself can’t escape. This equation gives the basic ingredients of the structure and evolution of the universe. It also gives hints about the extreme conditions out of which time and space emerged.