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.Einstein 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.