It’s All Relative
By John D. Whitman
In one sense, the twentieth century really began in 1879 in the town of Ulm, Germany. That year witnessed the birth of Albert Einstein, whose work would overturn the world of physics.
By 1886, Einstein’s family had moved by Munich, Germany, and Einstein continued his education there. When the family moved to Milan, Italy, in 1894, Einstein elected to remain behind. He tried to enter a school for electrical engineering in Zurich, Switzerland, but failed the entrance exam. Undaunted, Einstein entered a secondary school, where in 1900 he received a teaching degree in mathematics and physics.
He tried once again to enter a university, but again he was rejected. With the help of a friend, he obtained a job as a patent clerk in Bern, Switzerland. In that patent office, working in his spare time without close contact to any of the other great minds in physics, Einstein changed the world.
By 1905, Einstein had written three papers. Of these, the second was in many ways the most famous. It became known as the Theory of Relativity. With this paper, Einstein tackled an idea that had nagged at him for years. It had already been proven that light always travels at the same speed.
But what happens, Einstein asked, if we chase after a ray of light while we are traveling at the speed of light? We might guess that the light we’re chasing would seem to stand still, or at least move more slowly, since we’re going at the same rate. But Einstein proved that this was incorrect. Even if you could go that fast, light always seems to be moving away from you at the speed of light. This notion broke every rule of physics known at the time.
This discovery confirmed that many of the laws of physics aren’t set in stone. Instead, Einstein’s discovery seemed to point to the fact that laws give different results depending on where the observer is standing or how fast he is moving. In other words, results are only meaningful relative to your position in space and time. Nothing is fixed. It’s all relative. Einstein submitted his paper to the journal Annals of Physics, which was edited by Max
Planck, one of the men whose work Einstein had used to create his own theory. Reading through the document, Planck realized that, quietly and calmly, Einstein had turned the scientific world on its head.