He was the quintessential genius whose brainpower rewrote the laws of the universe. Albert Einstein may have died decades ago, but his immense legacy continues. Who has not heard of Einstein’s theory of relativity, which revolutionized our understanding of space, time, and matter? His other discoveries are themselves titanic achievements that on their own would have made him a famous scientist.
Einstein is the most famous and influential scientist of modern times. But no one is perfect, and his powerful intuition led him astray in several key areas of physics, which are now among the most fruitful areas of the discipline. Begin your study of Einstein mistakes by looking at what he got spectacularly right, starting with his revolutionary special theory of relativity.
Einstein’s greatest triumph was his general theory of relativity, which built on special relativity and led to a radically new understanding of the geometry of space and time. Einstein followed a rocky road to this breakthrough, with mistakes that hampered his progress and almost gave the honor of discovery to a rival.
The most astounding prediction of general relativity was considered so absurd by Einstein that he rejected it out of hand. Learn how the concept of black holes emerged from his theory and how he dismissed it, even as other researchers were gaining a detailed understanding of the theoretical properties of these strange objects. Only after Einstein’s death were black holes proved to exist.
General relativity predicts that objects with mass radiate extremely faint gravitational waves when they interact. Einstein was reluctant to accept this idea, but after his death evidence began accumulating that gravity waves do, in fact, exist—as shown by the detection of gravity waves from distant colliding black holes starting in 2015.
Investigate what Einstein reportedly called his “biggest blunder”: his insistence that the universe is static, despite the prediction of general relativity that space is either expanding or contracting. Explore why general relativity is inconsistent with a static universe, and chart astronomer Edwin Hubble’s pioneering observations that prove we live in an expanding cosmos.
Einstein tried to make general relativity compatible with a static universe by adding a cosmological constant to his equations, a move he later regretted. Learn how this “blunder” now looks prescient in light of the discovery that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, driven by some unknown dark energy. Einstein appears to have been right to add the constant, but for the wrong reason.
Along with relativity, Einstein’s major contributions to physics include his proof that light is made up of discrete quanta, an insight that led to the quantum revolution. Retrace his route to this key discovery. As with relativity, his genius was to break out of the classical mode of thinking about light and matter, going wherever experiment, logic, and mathematics led him.
Probe Einstein’s devotion to the principle of determinism, seeing how it prompted him to reject the probabilistic interpretation of quantum mechanics accepted by most of his peers. Einstein famously said that “God does not play dice,” meaning that quantum events only look probabilistic. He sought to make the quantum world less weird by finding a deterministic version of the theory.
Follow Einstein’s quest to overturn the standard view of quantum mechanics known as the Copenhagen interpretation. Focus on his famous EPR paper, written with two collaborators, which identified a paradoxical phenomenon later called entanglement. Study two proposals to supplant the Copenhagen view: the “hidden variable” and “many worlds” interpretations.
Einstein spent the last decades of his life searching for a unified field theory that would unite general relativity with Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism. But by then, quantum theory had superseded Maxwell’s work, rendering the entire exercise futile. See how this quest has nonetheless stimulated ideas for unification in proposals such as string theory.
Einstein’s friend Kurt Gödel discovered a solution to the general relativity equations that implied the possibility of time travel, an idea that Einstein found interesting but impossible. Was he right to dismiss time travel? Explore other solutions to Einstein’s equations that posit the existence of rotating black holes and worm holes, which may be portals to the past and future.
As a scientist who sometimes got things wrong, Einstein was in good company. In this last lecture, investigate the mistakes of three other great thinkers: Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, and Isaac Newton. Despite their triumphs in astronomy and physics, they, like Einstein, sometimes pursued intriguing but false leads. Consider the examples that their careers set for how science progresses.