Albert Einstein is one of those people that seem like they have always existed and will always exist, like da Vinci or Chaucer. The world over, people instantly recognize his tufts of white hair and can dutifully recite “E = mc^2” — even if they are unsure what it actually means.
To celebrate Einstein’s 143rd birthday on March 14, Inverse is dedicating this week to Einstein; his ideas, his legacy, and his genius. You can learn more about all of it in today’s special edition Inverse Daily, which is seriously Einstein-oriented. But remember, just because a name becomes a legend doesn’t mean the person is not human.
“Earth’s gravity distorts spacetime,” writes Inverse contributor Danielle Sedbrook. “As far as we know, every point on Earth experiences time and space differently by a minuscule — but measurable — amount.” Scientists detect these splinters of difference through atomic clocks, which are being blown open by research published earlier this year in Nature.
The two experiments used “optical lattice clocks,” which Sedbrook notes shield a process where, “ultra-cooled strontium atoms floating in a vacuum are trapped in place by light and made to ‘tick’ with a red laser. The laser then tells time by counting the ticks. These clocks keep time to an accuracy of a second in tens or even hundreds of billions of years, according to scientists.”
Incredibly precise optical lattice clocks are the name of these experiments’ game — so precise, that one of the research groups was able to measure a 0.2-millimeter gravity difference. Interestingly, “Einstein’s theories of general and special relativity still seem to hold true even at these very small distances, which are approaching the domain of quantum mechanics,” writes Sedbrook.
An Einstein ring, or gravitational lensing, isn’t what it looks like. For example, this Hubble Space Telescope image depicts “a ring of light punctuated by four bright spots, with two more diffuse spots glowing in the middle,” writes Danielle Sedbrook. Those bright spots are actually “the same object — a quasar — whose light is magnified and multiplied by the gravity of the two galaxies at the center.”
As the name “Einstein ring” implies, Einstein saw the cosmic illusion coming. In 1936, he wrote a letter to Science predicting that a star’s gravity would twist the light from the star behind it into a ring shape. His prediction was right, but in the same letter, Einstein lamented never being able to observe the bent light firsthand. Since telescopes have thankfully improved since 1936, Einstein was wrong about that.
“The first known image of an Einstein ring was captured in 1987 at the Very Large Array radio observatory in New Mexico,” writes Sedbrook. “A little over a decade later, Hubble found the first complete one. Since then astronomers have found many more Einstein rings.” Einstein would have loved Einstein rings.
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NASA’s Artemis program is designed to bring humans to the Moon for the first time since 1972. This week, starting at 4 p.m. EDT on March 17, NASA will make an important first move to that goal by planning its wet dress rehearsal for the first major mission under the program, Artemis I.
A wet dress rehearsal sounds kind of gross, but it isn’t, really. “Wet” just refers to filled liquid propellant tanks. In this case, that means Artemis I’s towering Space Launch Systems rocket will be swimming with supercooled liquid hydrogen fuel in its core stage and supercooled liquid oxygen in its oxidizer tanks.
The dress rehearsal part is a little more self-explanatory. The event isn’t a launch, but a practice round designed to help NASA test “every emergency scenario mission planners can think of,” writes Kiona Smith. “In particular, the launch team will practice scrubbing a launch at the last moment, resetting the countdown to T-10 minutes, and ‘de-tanking’ or emptying the fuel from the main rocket.” You can stream NASA’s launch preparations on Thursday on YouTube.
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Even geniuses make mistakes. “In the century-plus since Einstein published his seminal paper on general relativity (which gave us ideas like time dilation and space-time), modern scientists have continued to prove many other of Einstein’s predictions correct,” writes Sarah Wells. “However, even for a great physicist like Einstein, not all his ideas could be bangers.”
Wells breaks down five notable Einstein pitfalls, which include his skepticism about black holes and gravitational waves, his distaste for quantum mechanics, and an inability to nail the “holy grail of physics.” To his credit, this last part, a unifying theory of everything, hasn’t been defined by modern scientists either.
“The Standard Model was introduced in the 1970s to jointly explain the interactions of electromagnetism and the nuclear forces, but gravity has infamously not fit into this model,” writes Wells. Click on the article to read in-depth details about Einstein’s stubborn approach to physics.
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