A Universe From Nothing: Einstein, the Belgian Priest and the Puzzle of the Big Bang
It was a dark and stormy night.
Early in 1916, Albert Einstein had just completed his greatest life’s work, a decade-long, intense intellectual struggle to derive a new theory of gravity, which he called the general theory of relativity. This was not just a new theory of gravity, however; it was a new theory of space and time as well. And it was the first scientific theory that could explain not merely how objects move through the universe, but also how the universe itself might evolve.
There was just one hitch, however. When Einstein began to apply his theory to describing the universe as a whole, it became clear that the theory didn’t describe the universe in which we apparently lived.
Now, almost one hundred years later, it is difficult to fully appreciate how much our picture of the universe has changed in the span of a single human lifetime. As far as the scientific community in 1917 was concerned, the universe was static and eternal, and consisted of a single galaxy, our Milky Way, surrounded by a vast, infinite, dark, and empty space. This is, after all, what you would guess by looking up at the night sky with your eyes, or with a small telescope, and at the time there was little reason to suspect otherwise.
In Einstein’s theory, as in Newton’s theory of gravity before it, gravity is a purely attractive force between all objects. This means that it is impossible to have a set of masses located in space at rest forever. Their mutual gravitational attraction will ultimately cause them to collapse inward, in manifest disagreement with an apparently static universe.
The fact that Einstein’s general relativity didn’t appear consistent with the then picture of the universe was a bigger blow to him than you might imagine, for reasons that allow me to dispense with a myth about Einstein and general relativity that has always bothered me. It is commonly assumed that Einstein worked in isolation in a closed room for years, using pure thought and reason, and came up with his beautiful theory, independent of reality (perhaps like some string theorists nowadays!). However, nothing could be further from the truth.