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© Handout/Reuters The first photo of a black hole, a place where Einstein’s equations break down.
On May 29, 1919, a solar eclipse forever altered our conception of gravity, rewrote the laws of physics and turned a 40-year-old, wild-haired scientist into a global celebrity — the very personification of scientific genius.
It was a very good day for Albert Einstein.
The 1919 eclipse across South America and Africa provided direct evidence for Einstein’s mind-bending theory of gravity. He proposed in 1915 that gravity isn’t a spooky force acting across space but rather is a feature of the essence of space and time. Gravity is the warping and curving of the fabric of the universe.
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Einstein’s theory — the general theory of relativity — was hailed by the physicist J.J. Thomson as “one of the greatest achievements of human thought.” It has been confirmed by many more observations over the century, including the detection of gravitational waves and the first picture of a black hole just this year. He cracked a fundamental code of the universe.
And yet: Something’s amiss.
Although Einstein seemed to have the final word on how the universe is put together, more recent probing of deep space, as well as the inner workings of atoms, have found places where the theory breaks down.
For example, inside a black hole, Einstein’s equations suggest that matter and energy become so compressed they reach infinite density. But what does that mean? The theorists suspect it means they need a better theory.
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“You can’t calculate anything beyond that point, once the numbers become infinite. You’ve lost all control,” says Emil Mottola, a theoretical physicist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. “That doesn’t tell you that nature can’t do that, but it’s very suspicious.”
The same problem applies when cosmologists rewind the film reel of the universe’s expansion for the past 13 billion years and reach the very beginning of time and space, the so-called big bang. Einstein’s theory doesn’t quite work at the creation.
Notoriously — at least among theoretical physicists — general relativity doesn’t explain how gravity works at the tiniest of scales, the realm of subatomic particles.
Dark matter has never been directly observed, but its existence is inferred through its gravitational effects, such as on the motion of stars in galaxies. Conceivably it could be some kind of modification of the gravitational force that wasn’t predicted by Einstein, said Lee Smolin, a theorist at the Perimeter Institute.
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Dark energy, another cosmic mystery, is whatever is driving the acceleration of the expansion of the universe. This seeming anti-gravity acceleration was detected only in the late 1990s and strongly suggests that the universe will expand forever. So why is this happening?
“We don’t know. That’s why we call it ‘dark energy’,” says Gabriela Gonzalez, a professor of physics and astronomy at Louisiana State University.
“I think there are plenty of mysteries that I hope to see the solution to in my lifetime,” she said. “All these things need theories that can be confirmed by experiments. They need theories that have predictions.”
Which brings us back to Einstein, and the eclipse.
Einstein had emerged from obscurity in 1905 with a series of astonishing papers that obliterated classical notions about time and space. But his greatest achievement came a decade later, in 1915, when he described the equations governing gravity. He’d figured out a fundamental feature of the universe, using merely the power of his brain. But was it true? What if his equations were just a mathematical fancy, something that looked nifty on paper but did not correspond to physical reality?
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Einstein proposed an experimental test. A solar eclipse would block the sun’s light and allow scientists to study starlight passing close to the sun. His theory predicted that the sun’s gravitational field would displace the starlight by a certain amount compared to where they would be under classical theories of gravity.
British astronomer Arthur Eddington led an expedition to observe the eclipse from two locations, one in Brazil and one on the island of Principe near the African coast.
The stars backed Einstein.
When the Astronomer Royal, Sir Frank Dyson, announced the results in November of that year, newspapers ran front-page stories and Einstein became famous all over the planet.
In his biography of Einstein, author Walter Isaacson recounts an exchange between Einstein and a graduate student, Ilse Schneider, when news came that the theory had been upheld. She asked him, she later recalled, what he would have thought if the eclipse observations had contradicted his theory.
“Then I would have been sorry for the dear Lord; the theory is correct,” Einstein said.
Mottola notes that, since the days of Euclid and Aristotle, space and time had been seen as a passive stage for the events of the universe, unaffected by the comings and goings of planets and stars. But Einstein said that wasn’t so: Space and time were affected by matter, and even light has to obey the geometry of curved space.
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The modern world depends on accepting this cosmic truth. Spacecraft trajectories have to take general relativity into account. So does GPS. So does military targeting.
Einstein’s theory carried astonishing implications for exotic things out there in the universe, not least of which are black holes. Perhaps the most thunderous modern confirmation of Einstein came with the detection of gravitational waves from colliding black holes. Einstein had predicted the existence of gravitational waves; a century later, scientists found them.
The universe has not run out of surprises, and theoretical physicists remain in business. The questions don’t tend to get easier over time. When Mottola is asked about what happened, exactly, at the beginning of the universe, he says, “Sometimes you have to say you don’t know.”
Pictures: Best space photos of 2018
A self-portrait of National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Mars Science Laboratory mission rover Curiosity shows the robot at a drilled sample site called "Duluth" on the lower slopes of Mount Sharp on Mars on June 20.
Russia's Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft carrying members of the International Space Station expedition 57/58 – Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin and NASA astronaut Nick Hague – blasts off to the ISS from the launch pad at the Russian-leased Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Oct. 11. The mission was aborted shortly after launch due to an anomaly in the spacecraft.
This close-up image is of a two-inch-deep (5.08 centimeters) hole produced using a new drilling technique for NASA's Curiosity rover. Curiosity drilled this hole in "Duluth" on May 20. It was the first rock sample captured by the drill since October 2016.
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Physicists have confirmed predictions of Stephen Hawking’s namesake theory of black holes using a black hole they constructed in their lab, according to a new paper. Credit Cards Are Now Offering 0% Interest Until 2020 Find out more on Finder Ad Finder.com.au This black hole isn’t like the black holes out in space, where gravity creates a region of spacetime so warped that light can’t escape. Instead, the researchers built a black hole analogue using a strange quantum material called a Bose-Einstein condensate, in which the point of no return is for sound rather than light.
The setting sun is seen behind a lookout tower in Salgótarján, Hungary, on Aug. 22.
In this region of Lyot Crater on Mars, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows a field of classic barchan dunes on Jan. 24.
This image captures a close-up view of a storm with bright cloud tops in the northern hemisphere of Jupiter. Juno spacecraft took this color-enhanced image during a flyby on Feb. 7.
This image from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows the red planet's Hale Crater, a large impact crater with a suite of interesting features such as active gullies, active recurring slope lineae and extensive icy ejecta flows. There are also exposed diverse (colorful) bedrock units.
The crew of the International Space Station captured this image of the full moon on April 30, as the station orbited off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada.
A long exposure image shows stars revolving around the North Star, also known by the name of Polaris, during a "night of falling stars" on the Col de la Givrine mountain pass in Switzerland on Aug. 5.
Astronaut Ricky Arnold is seen on June 14, after this year's sixth spacewalk, which lasted 6 hours and 49 minutes. Arnold, along with Station Commander Drew Feustel, installed new high-definition cameras that will provide enhanced views during the final phase of approach and docking of the SpaceX Crew Dragon and Boeing Starliner commercial crew spacecraft.
This image of supernova remnant Cassiopeia A, captured by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, reveals the location of silicon (red), sulfur (yellow), calcium (green) and iron (purple) in the debris. The Micro-X mission, launched on July 22, will map a wider range of elements so astronomers can better understand the explosion. Cassiopeia A lies about 11,000 light-years from Earth.
Watch the first solar eclipse ever captured on film!
Watch the first solar eclipse ever captured on film!
New moon hangs in the sky over Hanover, Germany, on Nov. 6.
Swirling cloud belts and tumultuous vortices within Jupiter’s northern hemisphere are shown in this image from Juno spacecraft on May 23.
The aurora borealis, also known as northern lights, lights up the sky above the Godafoss waterfall in Iceland on Oct. 14.
People look at the setting sun during the Manhattanhenge – an event in which the sun rises or sets in alignment with the east-west streets of Manhattan – in New York City, New York, U.S., on July 12.
This Sept. 21 view of the sun by Solar Dynamics Observatory uses two selected images taken at virtually the same time, but in different wavelengths of extreme ultraviolet light. The red-tinted image, which captures material not far above the Sun's surface, is good for revealing details along the edge of the Sun. The brown-tinted image shows two large coronal holes (darker areas) as well as some faint magnetic field lines and hints of solar activity (lighter areas), neither of which are apparent in the red image. This activity is occurring somewhat higher in the sun's corona.
People look on as the Indian Space Research Organisation's communication satellite GSAT-29, on board the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV Mk III-D2), launches in Sriharikota, India, on Nov. 14.
Meteors streak past stars in the night sky during the Perseid meteor shower, in Premnitz, Germany, on Aug. 11.
The lone active region visible on the sun put on a fine display with its tangled magnetic field lines swaying and twisting above it (April 24-26) when viewed in a wavelength of extreme ultraviolet light.
On June 20, the International Space Station deployed the NanoRacks-Remove Debris satellite into space from outside the Japanese Kibo laboratory module. This technology demonstration was designed to explore using a 3-D camera to map the location and speed of orbital debris or "space junk."
This image captures the swirling cloud formations around the south pole of Jupiter, looking up toward the equatorial region. Juno spacecraft of NASA took the color-enhanced image during its eleventh close flyby of the gas giant planet on Feb. 7.
This image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope reveals a glistening and ancient globular cluster named NGC 3201 — a gathering of hundreds of thousands of stars bound together by gravity.
Star trails are seen over the Ashton Memorial in Lancaster, England, on Feb. 6.
This image from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, acquired on May 13 during winter at the South Pole of Mars, shows a carbon dioxide ice cap covering the region and as the sun returns in the spring, spider-like radiating mounds begin to emerge from the landscape.
A view of Saturn and its magnificent ring system on June 27, when the planet was directly opposite to the sun in the night sky.
A Perseid meteor is seen over Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, U.S., on Aug. 13.
The color-enhanced image was taken on May 23, as Juno performed its 13th close flyby of Jupiter.
The planet Mars and the Milky Way are visible on a clear night sky in Salgótarján, Hungary, on Aug. 3.
A view of the sun, captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory on May 15.
Captured by NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope's Wide Field Camera 3, the image shows the constellation of Coma Berenices wherein lies the Coma cluster – a structure of over 1,000 galaxies bound together by gravity. Many of these galaxies are elliptical types, as is the brighter of the two galaxies dominating this image: NGC 4860 (C).
This series of images shows simulated views of a darkening Martian sky blotting out the sun from Opportunity rover's point of view, with the right side simulating its current view in the global dust storm of June. The left starts with a blindingly bright mid-afternoon sky, with the sun appearing bigger because of brightness. The right shows the sun so obscured by dust it looks like a pinprick.
View of a prickly pear and the Milky Way in the sky over the Tatacoa Desert in Huila, Colombia, on Oct. 11.
This image, taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope’s Wide Field Camera 3, shows a spiral galaxy called NGC 6744. At first glance, it resembles Milky Way, but this galaxy is larger.
Swirling cloud formations in the northern area of Jupiter's north temperate belt are seen in this view taken by Juno spacecraft. The color-enhanced image was taken on Feb. 7.
One of the most actively changing areas on Mars are the steep edges of the North Polar layered deposits. This Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter image, released in July, shows many new ice blocks.
Resembling a wizard’s staff set aglow, NGC 1032 cleaves the quiet darkness of space in two in this image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. It is located about 100 million light-years away in the constellation Cetus (the Sea Monster). A handful of other galaxies can also be seen lurking in the background, scattered around the narrow strip of NGC 1032.
NASA's Parker Solar Probe, which was launched on Aug. 12, returned first-light data a month into its mission. The probe measures the sun’s electric and magnetic fields, particles from the sun and the solar wind. Pictured here are images of the environment around the spacecraft.
A full moon is pictured over Rome, Italy, on Nov. 24.
Watch the first solar eclipse ever captured on film!.
Watch the first solar eclipse ever captured on film!