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The Great War

May 9, 2016

Timing, as they say, is everything. That was especially true for a German expedition to watch a solar eclipse in August of 1914. After many months of planning, the scientists headed to Crimea. During the eclipse, they hoped to test some predictions by a young Albert Einstein. His equations were suggesting that the Sun’s gravity would deflect starlight that passed close to its surface.

When the expedition left Germany, there was talk about a recent political assassination in Austria. By the time it got to Russia, though, talk had turned to war. Russia arrested the scientists, although it traded them for some German prisoners. For these and many other astronomers, though, Albert Einstein would have to wait — the first World War was under way.

In fact, most astronomical matters would have to wait. Hundreds of astronomers and physicists fought in the war. Others helped develop and apply technology for military purposes. They devised better lenses for navigational instruments, for example, or calculated the paths of artillery shells.

Only a few leading astronomers managed to continue their scientific work during the war. Britain’s Arthur Eddington, for example, was excused from service to plan for an eclipse expedition in 1919. During that expedition, shortly after the war’s end, Eddington confirmed Einstein’s now-completed theory of gravity — by measuring the deflection of starlight around the Sun.

More about astronomy and the war tomorrow.


Script by Damond Benningfield

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