That was how Astronomy began its special section honoring the centennial of special relativity a decade ago. The question is no less poignant today.
In 1905, young Albert Einstein, then a Swiss patent clerk, cranked out four theories that would revolutionize humanity’s understanding of the cosmos. Any one of the theories could have netted a Nobel Prize. Physicists call it his “year of miracles.”
Then, in 1915, Einstein proved his accomplishments were no fluke. He built on special relativity with one of the biggest leaps in physics this side of Sir Isaac Newton. The general theory of relativity is still used today to understand extreme objects like black holes, as well as the physics of the Big Bang.
However, even after a century, scientists are still struggling to understand the theory’s ramifications. Billions of dollars, numerous careers, and several spacecraft have been dedicated to this pursuit. More efforts are underway even now.
So, how did Einstein pull it off? In this story from the Astronomy magazine vault, science writer Richard Panek reveals how relativity did not simply emerge from the ether. Einstein knew he stood on the shoulders of giants.