Big Ideas in Science


General relativity is Einstein’s famous theory about how gravity curves or bends light (with lots of other implications for physics and astrophysics!). He had presented ideas about special relativity (E = MC2) in 1905 , but wanted to extend that to include how gravity affected celestial bodies. In November 1915, he presented his general relativity to the Prussian Academy of Science.

The problem, of course, was World War I (1914-1918). The scientific community, though, worked around the war and Einstein’s papers eventually wound up in the hands of Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, head of the Cambridge Observatory in England. Eddington would be one of Einstein’s greatest supporters and explainers of his complex theory.

To tell the story of Einstein, Eddington and the 1919 solar eclipse, I wrote ECLIPSE: How the 1919 Solar Eclipse Proved Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. It launches on October 8 and is now available for preorder.

historical photo of Albert Einstein and Stanley Eddington.
7EN-S1-C0010943 (929331) E: (1879-1955), at left, was famous for his theories of relativity. British astrophysicist Sir Arthur Eddington (1882-1944), at right, pioneer Einstein and Eddington. German-born physicist Albert Einstein (1879-1955), at left, was famous for his theories of relativity. British astrophysicist Sir Arthur Eddington (1882-194 4), at right, pioneered the study of internal stellar structure. In 1919 Eddington led an expedition to observe stars near the sun during a solar eclipse. The results were hailed a s confirmation of Einstein’s 1915 theory of General Relativity, which predicted that light passing close to a large mass (like the Sun) bends twice as far as predicted by Newton’s theory of gravity. Photographed at the University of Cambridge Observatory, UK, in 1930.

Push and Pull: Explaining General Relativity to Kids

How do you explain general relativity to kids? I studied the NextGen Science Standards for inspiration and was thrilled to discover that even kindergartners study PUSH and PULL.

K-PS2-1 Motion and Stability: Forces and Interactions: Plan and conduct an investigation to compare the effects of different strengths or different directions of pushes and pulls on the motion of an object.

I realized that in Einstein’s theory PUSH would equal acceleration and PULL would equal gravity. By using the simple terms of PUSH and PULL, the theory became within reach for a children’s picture book.

Interior page of ECLIPSE by Darcy Pattison
British illustrator Peter Willis adds humor and appeal for kids.

The story follows Stanley Eddington to Africa into the path of totality for the 1919 solar eclipse. They carried a large telescope with them in hopes of photographing the eclipse. Before leaving England, they took NON-ECLIPSE photos of the Hyades star cluster. In Africa, they took DURING ECLIPSE photos to compare. If the Hyades star cluster appeared to move, it would be proof that the star light had bent around the sun.

It was a tricky and expensive expedition. The Principe Islands were known as the Chocolate Islands because they grew and exported cacao for major chocolate manufacturers such as Cadbury. Other than commercial exports, though, there was very little traffic to the island. Once there, the tropical climate made development of the film difficult. And there was the weather.

The eclipse would occur about 1:30 pm on May 29. The morning started with storms, so cloudy that no one could see the sky. About noon, it started to clear, but slowly. Finally, just as the eclipse started, the clouds parted.

Fortunately, a second team of astronomers had gone to Brazil, the other location that would experience a total eclipse. They, too, had problems. Their main telescope warped in the heat and moisture, making all images blurry. They used a back-up 4″ telescope to take the picture, the best pictures of either expedition.

Photos Proved General Relativity

Then, the hard work began. After the photographs were safely returned to the observatory in England, the measurements and calculations began. And it was complicated! The math had to account for Earth’s atmosphere, the gravity of Earth and the sun, temperature variations and more. But finally…

On November 6, 1919, Stanley and the other astronomers presented their results. The starlight had appeared to move. That meant the sun’s gravity had bent the starlight–which proved Einstein’s theory. The 1919 solar eclipse had changed the world forever.

See: First televised solar eclipse:

book cover of Eclipse: How the 1919 Solar Eclipse Proved Einstein's Theory of General Relativity
PreOrder now! Available October 8, 2019.

Watch the Eclipse in the FlipMe Feature

If you can’t see this video, CLICK HERE.

The BIG IDEAS in SCIENCE blog series

Big ideas in science are ideas, concepts, processes, or lessons that aren’t part of the science curriculum – but should be. Writing about big ideas in science wasn’t my plan. Instead, I thought I was writing about one amazing animal or one fascinating scientist at a time. However when I write, I’m always looking for something to spark my interest. Turns out, it’s the big ideas in science that make a topic fascinating enough to write about. I care about how this one specific example of science fits into a child’s overall understanding of science.

For the next year, I’ll post once a month on BIG IDEAS IN SCIENCE.
BIG IDEAS OF SCIENCE: Teachers Impact Can Last Centuries |

BIG IDEA: The Impact of Science Teachers

On December 28, 1848, as part of the Royal Institution’s Juvenile Christmas Science Lectures (London, England), Michael Faraday gave a scientific lecture to juveniles (kids). He called the lecture, “The Chemical History of a Candle.” British scientist Faraday is known as a superb experimenter, able to set up and conduct experiments. And he was an exciting lecturer, using experiments in his lectures. He always asked, “What is the cause? Why does it occur?”

Michael Faraday is consistently on lists of the Top 10 Scientists. He’s most famous for his work in electro-magnetic rotations, which is the basis of the electric motor. In chemistry, he discovered two elements, chlorine and carbon. He also experimented with steel alloys and optical quality glass. When he needed a convenient source of heat, he invented the Bunsen burner.

His candle lecture is the most famous science lecture ever given. The Royal Institution began giving juvenile lectures during the Christmas holiday in 1825. Since then, it’s run every year except during World War II. Faraday’s candle lecture was published in 1861 and has never gone out of print.

Think of that, science teachers! What if you gave a student lecture, published it and it stayed in print for 150+ years?

What was so wonderful about the lecture?

Fellow naturalist William Crookes described Faraday’s lectures this way: “All is a sparking stream of eloquence and experimental illustration.”

In other words, he was a gifted speaker with the ability to keep an audience fascinated. He knew what would keep their interest. One of his props was a candle salvaged from the wreck of the Royal George, which sunk on the 29th of August, 1782; yet the candle still burned brightly when lit.

Second, Faraday was aware of cutting-edge science of his time. One of the candles he showed was made from paraffin, which had just been discovered a year or two earlier. It was distilled from peat from peat bogs.

Faraday’s explanations were clear and understandable. He organized his lecture in a series of steps and explained each step thoroughly before moving forward.

BIG IDEA in SCIENCE: A good science teacher can have a long-term impact.


Burn: Michael Faraday's Candle | MimsHouse.comI took Faraday’s original 6500-word lecture and reduced it to 650 words. Of course, a picture book also has the advantage of illustrations. The diagram of a burning candle, and of the sources of candle wax are interesting and allow for fewer words.

Page from BURN: Michael Faraday's Candle |

In the editing process, word choice was hard. One problem is that Faraday’s lecture has archaic language. For a children’s book, it was important to keep the vocabulary under control. Archaic British expressions were the biggest hurdle in writing the story. In the end, I left some touch of archaic language, while updating most of the text to modern language. It’s a delicate balance to achieve.

I only hope that this version of Faraday’s candle lecture will have its own long life.

The 2018 Christmas Lecture will be given by biological anthropologist, author and broadcaster, Prof Alice Roberts, and Genetics expert Prof Aoife McLysaght, will take us on a fascinating journey to answer the most fundamental of questions: Who am I? The lectures will take place on December 11, 13, and 15, 2018.

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