Dr. Clifford Will, noted author, member of the McDonnell Center for the Space Sciences, and chair of the Physics Department at Washington University, St. Louis presented an exciting Smith Lecture to an audience of 300+ packed into the 900 Room on November 9th.
Will's book on Einstein, one of more than 160 publications he has produced, won the 1987 American Institute of Physics Science Writing Award, and was selected one of the 200 best books for 1986 by the New York Times Book Review. This book provided the basis for his lecture.
Will called Einstein's oft-debated general theory of relativity "one of the most remarkable theories of our time," and discussed its applications in daily life. He also did a marvelous job of emphasizing the important contributions that physicists can make to the general public.
He began the talk by explaining the history of general relativity. "In the 1920s, there was a prevailing notion that relativity was beyond the understanding of man," he said. But due to Einstein's research, "Beginning in the 1960s, there was a dramatic renaissance of the theory. It's now a central part of the physicist's enterprise." Dr. Will ended by presenting several examples in which the general theory has been applied, including the GPS system. Without accounting for general relativistic effects, the GPS clocks would become out-of-sync by as much as a microsecond/day whereas nanosecond precision is required. Although Einstein died in 1955, Will noted three reasons why his work has recently achieved its greatest fame since his death. He said the new breed of theorists prefer observable quantities over abstract formulas. Also, the discoveries of cosmic phenomena such as quasars, pulsars, black holes, and gravitational lenses, and the explosion of high-precision technology, including the space program and the laser, have played a role in the general acceptance of the theory.
The Smith family established the Smith Lectureship in 1985 to honor Henry Louis Smith, Physics Professor and President of Davidson College from 1901-1912. Dr. Smith is famous for his pioneering work with x-rays. The lecture series brings to campus distinguished scholars in the sciences.
On the previous day, Dr. Will spoke to the Modern Physics class on our latest understanding of black holes and presented a Physics Seminar entitled "The Search for Gravity Waves."