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The Great War, II

May 10, 2016

[AUDIO: It’s a long way to Tipperary, It’s a long way to go,
It’s a long way to Tipperary, To the sweetest girl I know!

As British soldiers sang themselves off to the battlegrounds of Europe a century ago, most of them put their former lives on hold. But a few scientists in their ranks found a way to continue their work — or at least they tried to. And so did soldier-scientists from other countries.

The head meteor watcher for the British Astronomical Society, for example, tried to count meteors from the front lines. In a report to his colleagues, though, he noted a problem: it was impossible to tell the shooting stars from the star shells — a type of artillery shell that sprayed sparks across the sky.

A few who fought on the German side, on the other hand, were more successful with their scientific endeavors.

Friedrich Kottler, an Austrian physicist who commanded an artillery unit, published his own interpretation of general relativity — Albert Einstein’s new theory of gravity, which Einstein completed in late 1915. And Hans Reissner, an engineer who won the Iron Cross for his aircraft designs, also found time to work on relativity. His calculations helped lead to the concept of black holes, which came from Einstein’s theory.

The first person to find black holes in Einstein’s equations was also the first person to solve those equations — a German officer who didn’t even believe his own discovery. More about that tomorrow.


Script by Damond Benningfield

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