After some delays, it now looks as if the spacecraft designed to test Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity finally will be launched Monday from Vandenberg Air Force Base. Assuming the launch finally happens — and surely it will eventually — this is exciting news for two reasons.
The first is that instruments are now available to register minute measurements and changes. Now, we don’t pretend to understand all this, but we can appreciate the small tolerances the scientists are talking about: If Einstein’s theory about “spacetime” warping is accurate, the gyroscopes aboard the satellite should change 6,614.4 mill-arcseconds a year for the geodetic effect (the term physicists use for the warping of spacetime, drawing smaller objects toward a more massive object) and 40.9 milli-arcseconds a year for frame dragging (the way a spinning object drags spacetime, as a spinning apple in a bowl of syrup drags the syrup).
Scientists say if you climbed a slope of 40.9 milli-arcseconds for 100 miles, you would rise only 1 inch. That’s measuring to a level of precision that would have been impossible not so long ago.
The second reason this launch captures the imagination is that scientists consider it so important to test Einstein’s theories.
Einstein was something of an icon of 20th-century science and culture, almost equated with intelligence and speculative genius. If he was wrong, a good deal of the foundation of modern physics will crumble.
But scientists, though many have an emotional or even a vested interest in Einstein being right, want to find out for sure. That’s what scientists should do and it’s good to see them doing it.