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General Relativity

Physics Rocks! Gravity Waves Vindicate Einstein's Theory

Tomas Kellner
February 12, 2016
Scientists at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) eavesdropping on two colliding black holes half a universe away heard enough to confirm the existence of gravitational waves. These ripples in spacetime were predicted by Albert Einstein in 1915, but never previously observed.
The sound, which science writer Dennis Overbye described as a "simple chirp, which rose to the note of middle C before abruptly stopping," vindicates Einstein's theory of general relativity: 10 equations published a century ago that rocked the foundations of physics and changed how we view the universe.

The equations upended our intuitive understanding of space and time and redrew the Cosmos as a funhouse where two parallel lines can intersect and time can run at different speeds. “Einstein’s theory, and the intervening century of experimentation, provided a way to satisfy one of the most fundamental yearnings: to understand what is out there in the universe, how it all began and humanity’s place in it,” The Economist wrote on the anniversary.

But it wasn’t always obvious that he would sit in the pantheon of great geniuses. When Einstein visited GE in 1921, the GE-produced newspaper Schenectady Works News described him as the “noted German scientist who has the world guessing with his theory of relativity.” Even when Einstein received his Nobel Prize in physics later the same year, it wasn’t for relativity but for explaining the photoelectric effect.

121442 Steinmetz and Einstein uncropped[1] Einstein outside the RCA broadcast center in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Einstein and Steinmetz (in white suit) stand in the center. GE's Irving Langmuir is third to the right from Steinmetz. In 1932, he won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work that led to early coronary artery imaging. All images credit: Museum of Innovation and Science in SchenectadyEinstein spent much of his time exploring GE technology in the company of Charles Steinmetz, a fellow German engineer and scientist who ran GE research and helped build the grid and electrify America. (Like lines in curved spacetime, their work eventually converged. Today, GE's grid management business is using Einstein's relativity to digitize and synchronize power distribution and prevent outages.)

Einstein, Steinmetz and their entourage of more than a dozen scientists and executives then toured a high-power transoceanic radio station in New Brunswick, New Jersey. It was operated by the Radio Corporation of America, which was co-founded by GE and featured a high-frequency alternator designed by GE engineer Ernst Alexanderson in 1918.

The machine was so powerful that the U.S. military took charge of it during World War I. American commanders used it to communicate with their allies and the American Expeditionary Forces in France. “It became a vital national security tool, especially after failures in the transatlantic cables,” says Chris Hunter, a historian at the Museum of Innovation and Science in Schenectady.

Einstein reportedly “expressed great surprise and interest at the high perfection" of American radio development. “To demonstrate the efficiency of radio communication, Prof. Einstein was asked to send a message to the station at Nauen, Germany,” the Works News wrote. “He did and in exactly six minutes received the following reply: Many thanks and reciprocations. Most hearty greetings to the great German scientist. Officer in charge POZ.”

The moment endures in a classic photograph of the scientists, including Einstein, Steinmetz and GE researcher and Nobel Prize winner Irving Langmuir, standing in front of the RCA radio station.

Alexanderson High Frequency Alternator, New Brunswick, New Jersey Wireless Station, being inspected by military. The alernators developed by General Electric engineer Ernst Alexanderson were valuable communication tools during WOrld War I. The Alexanderson high frequency alternator at the New Brunswick radio station during military inspection. The machine,  developed by GE engineer Ernst Alexanderson, was a valuable communication tool during World War I. Image credit: Museum of Innovation and Science Schenectady

General Electric engineer Charles Steinmetz works in the laboratory building at his Wendell Avenue home in Schenectady. GE engineer Charles Steinmetz at his Wendell Av. home laboratory in Schenectady, New York. When he died suddenly in 1923, then Secretary of Commerce and future U.S. President Herbert Hoover wrote that "his mathematical reasoning broke the path for many of the advances in electrical engineering in recent years and solved problems that were vital to the progress of the industry." Steinmetz also was the first person to create artificial lightning. A friend described the creative freedom Steinmetz enjoyed at GE to the writer of the engineer's New York Times obituary: "He was allowed to try to generate electricity out of the square root of minus one." Image credit: Museum of Innovation and Science Schenectady