This intellectual revolution began with four lectures in late 1915 presented to the Prussian Academy of Sciences. The lectures were given by Albert Einstein, and before the end of the year Einstein would publish his argument for a “General Theory of Relativity.” Those lectures launched an intellectual revolution, and Einstein’s theory of relativity is essential to our understanding of the modern age.
The 100th anniversary of a scientific theory is not necessarily a matter of great cultural importance. Einstein had developed his Special Theory of Relativity a decade earlier, but his General Theory–extended to the entire cosmos–was breathtaking in its revolutionary power. Einstein replaced the world of Newtonian physics with a new world marked by four dimensions, instead of just three. Time, added as a fourth dimension, changed everything.
Einstein summarized his own theory in these words:
“The ‘Principle of Relativity’ in its widest sense is contained in the statement: The totality of physical phenomena is of such a character that it gives no basis for the introduction of the concept of ‘absolute motion;’ or, shorter but less precise: There is no ‘absolute motion.’”
Thus, time, matter, and energy are relative, and not absolute. Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Thomas Levenson recently called Einstein’s theory “the greatest intellectual accomplishment of the twentieth century.” The Economist, marking the centennial of Einstein’s lectures, called the General Theory of Relativity “one of the highest intellectual achievements of humanity.” It is no exaggeration to claim Einstein’s theory as the very foundation of modern cosmology.
And yet, most modern people–even well educated moderns–have little idea of the actual theory or of its scientific significance. In everyday life, Newtonian physics serves very well. Cosmologists may depend on Einstein’s theory in their daily work, but few others do.
Nevertheless, the cultural impact of Einstein’s theory extends far beyond the laboratory or the science classroom. As the twentieth century unfolded, Einstein’s theory of relativity quickly became a symbol and catalyst for something very different — the development of moral relativism.
Einstein was not a moral relativist, nor did he believe that his theories had any essential moral or cultural meaning. He recoiled when his theory of relativity was blamed or credited for the birth of modern art (Cubism, in particular) or any other cultural development.
The philosopher Isaiah Berlin defended Einstein against any such charge: “The word relativity has been widely misinterpreted as relativism, the denial, or doubt about, the objectivity of truth or moral values.” He continued, “This was the opposite of what Einstein believed. He was a man of simple and absolute moral convictions, which were expressed in all he was and did.”