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Einstein's struggle to relativize all motion, uniform and nonuniform, illustrates the old travelers' saying that the journey is more important than the destination. Although Einstein never reached the destination he originally had in mind, he found many valuable results along the way. For starters, he fulfilled many of his philosophical hopes, albeit in ways very different from what he originally envisioned. Absolute motion survives in general relativity, since there is an absolute difference between moving on a geodesic and moving on a nongeodesic. But motion with respect to curved space-time with a geometry described by a field interacting with matter (itself described by other fields) is a much more agreeable proposition than motion with respect to the absolute space(-time) of Newtonian theory and special relativity. The combination of the hole argument and the point-coincidence argument, moreover, had provided a strong argument against a Newtonian substantival view of space-time and strong support for the rival Leibnizian relational view.

More importantly, Einstein had found a new theory of gravity, which does away with the artificial split between space-time and gravity of Newtonian theory. This theory opened up such exciting research areas as modern cosmology, black holes, singularities, gravitational waves, and gravitational lensing. Even some of the dead ends in Einstein's crusade against absolute motion led to interesting physics. In 2004, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Gravity Probe B was trying to detect frame dragging, a phenomenon first investigated in the context of Einstein's misguided attempt to vindicate Mach's account of Newton's bucket experiment. The cosmological constant, originally introduced in the context of Einstein's ill-fated attempt to make general relativity satisfy Mach's principle, has made a spectacular comeback in modern cosmology as a straightforward phenomenological description of the repulsion driving the acceleration of the expansion of the universe discovered through Type Ia Supernovae observations. Einstein's quest for general relativity was a very rewarding journey indeed.


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Michel Janssen

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Reason to RetrovirusRelativity - Special Relativity, General Relativity, Conclusion, Bibliography