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Galileo and Einstein - Fowler

Galileo and Einstein - Fowler

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Published by: jlnlima on Mar 20, 2013
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03/05/2014

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After Newton, the mathematical and physical sciences developed rapidly, especially in France
and England. Over the next two hundred years, astronomical observations became orders of
magnitude more exact, and Newton’s theory of gravitation, based on much cruder observations,
continued to predict the planetary motions successfully, as more demanding precision was
needed. But finally it stumbled: the planet Mercury goes around the Sun in an elliptical orbit,
and the axis of this ellipse itself moves slowly around in a circle. The rate of this axis turning, or
precession, as it’s called, is predicted by Newton’s theory: it’s caused by attraction of other

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planets, and the sun not being a perfect sphere. But the Newtonian prediction was a little bit
wrong: about 1% from what was observed. And the precession is very small anyway: the
discrepancy amounted to a difference of about a one degree turn in ten thousand years. But
this tiny effect was a key to Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, which turns out to have far
more dramatic manifestations, such as black holes.

Perhaps the most important development in the physical sciences in the two centuries following
Newton was progress in understanding electricity and magnetism, and the realization that light
was a wave of electric and magnetic fields. This made possible much of the basic technology
underpinning our civilization: electric power was distributed in the late 1800’s, radio waves were
first transmitted around 1900. Quite unexpectedly, imagining someone in motion measuring
the electric and magnetic fields in a light wave led to Einstein’s epiphany, that time was not as
absolute as everyone had always taken for granted, but flowed at different rates for people
moving at different speeds. This in turn led to the Special Theory of Relativity, to E = mc2

, and

nuclear power.

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