In 1916, Arthur Eddington, a war-weary British astronomer, opened a letter written by an obscure German professor named Einstein. The neatly printed equations on the scrap of paper outlined his world-changing theory of general relativity, the first complete revision of our conception of the universe since Isaac Newton.
Until then, Einstein’s masterpiece of time and space had been trapped behind the physical and ideological lines of battle. Many Britons were rejecting anything German, but Eddington realised the importance of the letter: perhaps Einstein’s esoteric theory could not only change the foundations of science but also lead to international co-operation in a time of brutal war.
Few recognise how the Great War, the industrialised slaughter that bled Europe from 1914 to 1918, shaped Einstein’s life and work. While Einstein never held a rifle, he formulated general relativity blockaded in Berlin, literally starving. His name is now synonymous with ‘genius’, but it was not an easy road.
Einstein spent a decade creating relativity and his ascent to global celebrity owed much to against-the-odds international collaboration, including Eddington’s globe-spanning expedition of 1919 – two years before they finally met – to catch a fleeting solar eclipse for a rare opportunity to confirm Einstein’s bold prediction that light has weight.
We usually think of scientific discovery as a flash of individual inspiration, but here we see it is the result of hard work, gambles and wrong turns. Einstein’s War is a celebration of what science can offer when bigotry and nationalism are defeated. Using previously unknown sources and written like a thriller, it shows relativity being built brick-by-brick in front of us, as it happened 100 years ago.