YOU ARE HERE: Home > News & Press > News archive > News 2009 > RAS PN 09/42: Celebrating the 20th century's most important experiment

I want information on:

Information for:

NEWS ARCHIVE

RAS PN 09/42: Celebrating the 20th century's most important experiment

Last Updated on Monday, 29 March 2010 14:04
Published on Friday, 29 May 2009 00:01
ILN_221119.jpg
In 1919, the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) launched an expedition to the West African island of Príncipe, to observe a total solar eclipse and prove or disprove Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. Now, in a new RAS-funded expedition for the International Year of Astronomy (IYA 2009), scientists are back.


INTERNATIONAL YEAR OF ASTRONOMY 2009 PRESS INFORMATION NOTE:
CELEBRATING THE 20TH CENTURY’S MOST IMPORTANT EXPERIMENT
Date: 28th May 2009
EMBARGOED UNTIL 0001 BST, 29TH MAY 2009

Issued by:

Dr Robert Massey
Press and Policy Officer
Royal Astronomical Society
Tel: +44 (0)20 7734 3307
Mob: +44 (0)794 124 8035
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

CELEBRATING THE 20TH CENTURY’S MOST IMPORTANT EXPERIMENT (RAS PN 09/42, EMBARGOED)

In 1919, the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) launched an expedition to the West African island of Príncipe, to observe a total solar eclipse and prove or disprove Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. Now, in a new RAS-funded expedition for the International Year of Astronomy (IYA 2009), scientists are back.

Astronomers Professor Pedro Ferreira from the University of Oxford and Dr Richard Massey from the University of Edinburgh, along with Oxford anthropologist Dr Gisa Weszkalnys, are paying homage to the original expedition led by Sir Arthur Eddington and celebrating the 90th anniversary of one of the key discoveries of the 20th century.

Einstein first proposed his General Theory of Relativity in 1915. It describes how any massive object, such as the Sun, creates gravity by bending space and time around it. Everything in that space is also bent: even rays of light. Consequently, distant light sources, behind the massive object, can appear in a different position or look brighter than they would otherwise.

The total eclipse of 29th May 1919 gave scientists the chance to test the theory for the first time. Eddington travelled to Príncipe to observe the eclipse and measure the apparent locations of stars near the Sun. Heavy clouds parted minutes before the eclipse and, with the Sun almost directly in front of them, the stars appeared to be shifted from the positions that Eddington had recorded in Oxford 4 months earlier – direct evidence that our nearest star shapes the space around it.

 “This first observational proof of General Relativity sent shockwaves through the scientific establishment,” said Professor Ferreira. “It changed the goalposts for physics.”

To mark the anniversary, in partnership with the International Astronomical Union, São Toméan and Portuguese governments, the team will gather with local people for a series of public talks, the installation of an exhibition in the capital Santo Antá½¹nio, and the unveiling of a plaque at the plantation where the original observation was made. Dr. Weszkalnys feels it “particularly important that in 2009, the International Year of Astronomy, the dramatic role played in the history of science by a tiny island like Príncipe should not be forgotten.”

Eddington’s 1919 measurement of the bending of light was used to determine the nature of gravity. At the time, even Einstein saw no further uses. “But now that gravity is well understood,” said Dr. Massey, “the effect, known as ‘gravitational lensing’, has become one of our most powerful tools to study the Universe.”

Gravitational lenses work in a similar way to ordinary glass lenses, focusing and magnifying light – but on a huge scale. They enable astronomers like Dr Massey to see objects that are otherwise too far away or faint for even the largest telescopes on Earth.

CONTACTS

Dr Gisa Weszkalnys
University of Oxford
Mob: +44 (0)7800 554845
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Dr Richard Massey
Institute of Astronomy, University of Edinburgh
Royal Observatory Edinburgh
Mob: +44 (0)7740 648080
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Professor Pedro Ferreira
University of Oxford
Mob: +44 (0)7796 695036
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Eleanor Gilchrist, PR Officer
Royal Observatory Edinburgh
Tel: +44 (0)131 668 8397
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Príncipe eclipse expedition: http://www.1919eclipse.org/
São Tomé and Príncipe tourist board: http://www.turismo-stp.org/pages/en/

IMAGES

Illustrative (and amusing) newspaper headlines from the time: http://www.1919eclipse.org/1919eclipse.php
The Plaque http://www.1919eclipse.org/images/posters/Plaque.png
A map showing the location of Príncipe http://www.1919eclipse.org/principe.php

Dr Richard Massey plans to post images of the unveiling ceremony in Príncipe, but this may not be possible if E-mail access is not available, in which case they will be put online on his return.

NOTES FOR EDITORS

THE ROYAL ASTRONOMICAL SOCIETY

The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), founded in 1820, encourages and promotes the study of astronomy, solar-system science, geophysics and closely related branches of science. The RAS organizes scientific meetings, publishes international research and review journals, recognizes outstanding achievements by the award of medals and prizes, maintains an extensive library, supports education through grants and outreach activities and represents UK astronomy nationally and internationally. Its more than 3000 members (Fellows), a third based overseas, include scientific researchers in universities, observatories and laboratories as well as historians of astronomy and others.

THE INTERNATIONAL YEAR OF ASTRONOMY 2009 (IYA 2009)

The International Year of Astronomy 2009 (IYA 2009) will be a global celebration of astronomy and its contributions to society and culture. It is intended to stimulate worldwide interest not only in astronomy, but in science in general, with a particular slant towards young people. IYA 2009 will mark the 400th anniversary of the monumental leap forward that followed Galileo Galilei’s first use of the telescope for astronomical observations. In the UK the chair of IYA2009 is Professor Ian Robson, director of the UK Astronomy Technology Centre in Edinburgh, and the co-ordinator for IYA 2009 activities is Steve Owens, also a UKATC employee. UK IYA 2009 activities are jointly funded by the Royal Astronomical Society (www.ras.org.uk), the Institute of Physics (www.iop.org) and the Science and Technology Facilities Council (www.stfc.ac.uk).

IYA 2009: UK home page
http://www.astronomy2009.co.uk