Arthur Eddington


Arthur Eddington : biography

28 December 1882 – 22 November 1944


During World War I Eddington was Secretary of the Royal Astronomical Society, which meant he was the first to receive a series of letters and papers from Willem de Sitter regarding Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Eddington was fortunate in being not only one of the few astronomers with the mathematical skills to understand general relativity, but (owing to his internationalist and pacifist views) one of the few at the time who was still interested in pursuing a theory developed by a German physicist. He quickly became the chief supporter and expositor of relativity in Britain. He and Astronomer Royal Frank Watson Dyson organized two expeditions to observe a solar eclipse in 1919 to make the first empirical test of Einstein’s theory: the measurement of the deflection of light by the sun’s gravitational field. In fact, it was Dyson’s argument for the indispensability of Eddington’s expertise in this test that allowed him to escape prison during the war.

After the war, Eddington travelled to the island of Príncipe near Africa to watch the solar eclipse of 29 May 1919. During the eclipse, he took pictures of the stars in the region around the Sun. According to the theory of general relativity, stars with light rays that passed near the Sun would appear to have been slightly shifted because their light had been curved by its gravitational field. This effect is noticeable only during eclipses, since otherwise the Sun’s brightness obscures the affected stars. Eddington showed that Newtonian gravitation could be interpreted to predict half the shift predicted by Einstein.

Eddington’s observations published the next year confirmed Einstein’s theory, and were hailed at the time as a conclusive proof of general relativity over the Newtonian model. The news was reported in newspapers all over the world as a major story. Afterward, Eddington embarked on a campaign to popularize relativity and the expedition as landmarks both in scientific development and international scientific relations.

It has been claimed that Eddington’s observations were of poor quality and he had unjustly discounted simultaneous observations at Sobral, Brazil, which appeared closer to the Newtonian model, but a 1979 re-analysis with modern measuring equipment and contemporary software validated Eddington’s results and conclusions. The quality of the 1919 results was indeed poor compared to later observations, but was sufficient to persuade contemporary astronomers. The rejection of the results from the Brazil expedition was due to a defect in the telescopes used which, again, was completely accepted and well-understood by contemporary astronomers.

Throughout this period Eddington lectured on relativity, and was particularly well known for his ability to explain the concepts in lay terms as well as scientific. He collected many of these into the Mathematical Theory of Relativity in 1923, which Albert Einstein suggested was "the finest presentation of the subject in any language." He was an early advocate of Einstein’s General Relativity, and an interesting anecdote well illustrates his humour and personal intellectual investment: Ludwik Silberstein, a physicist who thought of himself as an expert on relativity, approached Eddington at the Royal Society’s (6 November) 1919 meeting where he had defended Einstein’s Relativity with his Brazil-Principe Solar Eclipse calculations with some degree of skepticism and ruefully charged Arthur as one who claimed to be one of three men who actually understood the theory (Silberstein, of course, was including himself and Einstein as the other two). When Eddington refrained from replying, he insisted Arthur not be "so shy", whereupon Eddington replied, "Oh, no! I was wondering who the third one might be!"As related by Eddington to Chandrasekhar and quoted in Walter Isaacson "Einstein: His Life and Universe", page 262

Popular and philosophical writings

Eddington wrote a clever parody of the classic poem The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam recounting his 1919 solar eclipse experiment, including the verse: Oh leave the Wise our measures to collate One thing at least is certain, LIGHT has WEIGHT One thing is certain, and the rest debate – Light-rays, when near the Sun, DO NOT GO STRAIGHT.