On the afternoon of November 25, 1915 Einstein gave a lecture to the Prussian Academy of Science about his new general theory of relativity and as a result our universe changed.
Prior to this, our understanding of how things worked relied on Newton’s laws. He imagined a set of rulers and a clock measuring universal space and constant time – with no real justification for this it, because it was common sense. In this universe everyone agrees what happens, and when and where it takes place. The theory worked, it predicted the existence of Neptune. It was an outstanding achievement.
This universe is impeccably logical in many ways, and yet like the Wizard of Oz, it was all created with smoke and mirrors. As Newton himself admitted, he couldn’t explain what gravity actually was, it was just this mysterious force that acted instantaneously across vast distances.
Newton’s universe exists outside the events it contains. Einstein’s universe is fundamentally different. Space and time are woven together into a four-dimensional fabric that changes its structure as a result of material objects. This universe changes with time, it has a past and a future.
The first test of general relativity was carried out in 1919 by Eddington, a Quaker astrophysicist who narrowly avoided being sent to prison during the First World War. Eddington measured the position of stars behind the Sun during a solar eclipse and showed that they were altered as a result of the light travelling through space-time distorted by the Sun’s mass – the size of effect was predicted by Einstein who became famous overnight. Newspaper headlines at the time picked up on this perception of space shifting around us; ‘Stars not where they were or appeared to be…’
Later in the 1920s Hubble’s observations of galaxies all receding from us showed that the Universe appeared to be expanding. Space-time itself was in motion.
Is it any coincidence that at the same time artists were developing Cubism – a way of depicting objects at different spaces and times? And modernist literature turned its back on the traditional omniscient point of view, just as physicists rejected the idea of the universal observer. From now on, all observers had to consider how their own properties might influence the outcome of any experiment.
The maths describing this new universe is formidably difficult, to the point that Einstein himself struggled with it. What are much easier to get to grips with are the thought equations that he used – short narratives populated by people furnished with clocks, torches, trains and lifts to illustrate the logical outcomes of his thinking. These thought experiments demolish the idea of a universal causality common to all observers.
It was these narratives, together with the realisation that our concept of the universe changed so dramatically in 1915 that led to this new anthology coming into being, when I felt that the 100th anniversary should be celebrated, and in a way that was somewhat outside the scientific orthodoxy (as was Einstein, at least early on in his career). Just what would happen if you let loose a bunch of fiction writers on this subject?
Some of the contributors had a background in the subject, others didn’t. They all tackled it enthusiastically. The STFC research council financed it with equal enthusiasm. They saw, correctly, that writing stories about science is a good way to take that science to new audiences.
The anthology also contains three non-fiction essays about general relativity from astrophysicists at Oxford University. They took part in a day-long workshop on general relativity for our writers at Oxford University in September 2014.
And the title? Because nothing summarises the interdependence of mass and space-time better than the Ubunto philosophy of ‘I Am Because You Are’. As Einstein proved mathematically, none of us exists in splendid isolation.