Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Happy Birthday, General Relativity!

The modern world began on 29 May 1919 when photographs of a solar eclipse, taken on the island of Principe off West Africa and at Sobral in Brazil, confirmed the truth of a new theory of the universe.
--from Modern Times by Paul Johnson (Harper, 1983)

One hundred years ago today, on November 25, 1915, Albert Einstein presented a paper to the Prussian Academy of Sciences, a paper that set forth a theory that radically remade the world. The theory was General Relativity, and it was confirmed, as Paul Johnson wrote, four years after its presentation, when the light of a distant star was shown to have bent around the sun. People would go on talking about the interstellar ether and other outmoded concepts for years afterwards, but to those who were paying attention to such things, relativity presented new possibilities.

Paul Johnson's thesis is that relativity passed from science into other fields of thought:
At the beginning of the 1920s the belief began to circulate, for the first time at a popular level, that there were no longer any absolutes: of time and space, of good and evil, of knowledge, above all of value. Mistakenly but inevitably, relativity became confused with relativism. (p. 4)
Coupled to Freudianism, Darwinism, Marxism, and other nineteenth-century isms, relativism helped make the horrors of the twentieth (and twenty-first) century possible. None of that can be laid at Einstein's feet, of course, but the confusion of relativism with relativity is an example of how "[t]he scientific genius impinges on humanity, for good or ill, far more than any statesman or warlord." (p. 5) I might add that the words "scientific moron" or "pseudoscientific genius" might easily be substituted for "scientific genius" in Paul Johnson's formulation.

Relativity opened doors of imagination for writers and artists as well as for scientists and dictators. In January 1919, before the British expedition to the southern hemisphere to take pictures of the solar eclipse, the first magazine devoted to fantasy fiction, Der Orchideengarten, went to press in Einstein's home country of Germany. The Thrill Book, an American magazine, followed in March of that year. Four years later, in March 1923, Weird Tales began. That magazine, "The Unique Magazine," was the first American magazine of its kind. By the time it went into publication, writers, just like the general public, were at least aware of Einstein and his theories, even if they didn't quite understand them. H.P. Lovecraft, an amateur astronomer and a man of great learning, famously mentioned Einstein in his work. So did his followers. "The Whisperer in Darkness" by Lovecraft (Weird Tales, Aug. 1931) and "The Hounds of Tindalos" by Frank Belknap Long, Jr. (Weird Tales, Mar. 1929) are among the stories touching upon Einstein and relativity. Both stories invoke the possibilities of time travel by relativistic physics.

I don't know who was first among Weird Tales writers to mention Einstein and relativity, but future editor Farnsworth Wright is a candidate, for in October 1923, Weird Tales published his story "An Adventure in the Fourth Dimension." It's a humorous story and not one likely to appeal to Lovecraft fans. I won't spoil the ending any more than it's already spoiled. "An Adventure in the Fourth Dimension" was reprinted in The Moon Terror (1927) and The Best of Weird Tales: 1923 (1997).

Since it was first propounded, relativity has made more than horrors possible. It has also helped us make things of elegance and beauty, including works of art. Without it, science fiction would still live in the age of the ether, which was fine in its time, but limited. Now the only limit is c, and even that is no great obstacle to the science fiction imagination. So Happy Birthday to General Relativity!

Further Reading
"H.P. Lovecraft and Albert Einstein," a four-part article on the blog Lovecraftian Science: Scientific Investigations into the Cthulhu Mythos, beginning February 23, 2014, here.

Intellectuals--scientists, writers, college professor types--like to believe that their ideas are important and influential. Too often, they try to make their ideas important by forcing them on to others. Few things enrage them more than being ignored. Einstein was different: people paid attention. But maybe not as much as what he and others thought. Leave it to the cartoonist to puncture intellectual self-importance. That's what Rea Irvin did with this drawing for The New Yorker, reprinted in The Second New Yorker Album (1929).

The first Weird Tales anthology was The Moon Terror by A.G. Birch and Stories by Anthony M. Rud, Vincent Starrett and Farnsworth Wright, published in 1927 by Popular Fiction Publishing of Indianapolis. Among the four stories in the book is "An Adventure in the Fourth Dimension" by Wright, future editor of "The Unique Magazine." The cover artist is unknown. It could very well have been William F. Heitman. 

Wright's story was reprinted seventy years later in The Best of Weird Tales: 1923 (1997). This is the only volume in what looked like it was going to be a series. Someone ought to continue it, but that doesn't seem likely to happen. The cover artist is Stephen Fabian.

Text and captions copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley

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