A solar eclipse on May 29, 1919 changed science forever.
The story starts earlier on November 15, 1915 when German scientist Albert Einstein presented a paper about his general theory of relativity. The theories were hard for most people to understand. However, a British astronomer, Stanley Eddington, was fascinated by the theory and worked to help explain it to his colleagues.
The 1919 solar eclipse provided the perfect opportunity to prove Einstein’s theory. The sun’s gravity, Einstein said, would pull light rays making them bend or curve. A solar eclipse was the perfect time to measure this shift. Scientists needed to photograph some bright stars before the eclipse and then during the eclipse and compare the two. If the stars appeared to move, the light was bending.
This is a difficult concept for kids! But the NextGen Science Standards ask kindergarten kids to understand the concepts of PUSH and PULL. In space, gravity is the pull, while acceleration is the push. By using the simple concepts of PUSH and PULL, kids begin the process of conceptualizing Einstein’s theory. It will likely be a life-time journey, but we can start it very simply in elementary school.
ECLIPSE: How the 1919 Solar Eclipse Proved Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity
Available in October, 2019 is our story ECLIPSE: How the 1919 Solar Eclipse Proved Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. It tells the story of Eddington’s trip to a small African island of Principe, also known as the Chocolate Islands because cacao nuts were grown there. In 1919, it was a 47 day boat trip. Once there, Eddington and his associate Edwin Cottingham set up the telescopes and waited for May 25, 1919.
Just in case the weather was bad, astronomers also sent a team to Brazil to photograph the solar eclipse. Both locations were remote and difficult to reach with the huge telescopes required. Heat and humidity plagued both teams, causing photographic materials to warp, which threw off the focus.
This is a dramatic story! On Principe, it rained that morning, only clearing up right as the eclipse started. The scientists only had 302 seconds of totality, the time when the sun was totally blocked. They exposed photographic plates with a metronome ticking off the seconds.
Measuring a Solar Eclipse
The analysis of data took months because they had to account for temperature, humidity, position of the telescope on Earth and more. Finally, on November 6, 1919, astronomers announced the results: light does bend around the sun. The photographs proved Einstein’s general theory of relativity.
An interactive element is built into the story. If you flip the top-right corner, the images will show a solar eclipse happening.
The story is illustrated by Peter Willis (see Peter’s interview on the Children’s Book Council website), a British artist. It joins the other books in the Moments in Science series:
- Burn: Michael Faraday’s Candle
- Clang: Ernst Chladni’s Sound Experiments – 2019 NSTA Outstanding Science Trade Book
- Pollen: Darwin’s 130-Year Prediction – Kirkus Starred Review, Junior Library Guild selection.