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Einstein’s Theory Proven Right in Sao Tome and Principe

In May 1919, Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity was proven by Sir Arthur Eddington in Sao Tome

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Raghu Gururaj
Raghu Gururaj
Ambassador of India to the Republic of Sao Tome and Principe

SAO TOME AND PRINCIPE: The remote São Tomé and Príncipe on the West coast of Africa has much more than natural beauty, exotic flora and fauna, sun-kissed beaches, and dark chocolates. It is connected to Albert Einstein in a way most people might not imagine. Roca Sundy plantation in Principe island is a part of world scientific history.

Roca Sundy’s Einstein connection

Roca Sundy’s place in history was to take an unexpected turn when it became linked to one of the most important scientific discoveries of the last century.

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It was in these coffee plantations north of the equator on the lovely island of Principe, where in May 1919, Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity was proven here by Sir Arthur Eddington, an English astronomer, and physicist, while observing a solar eclipse. His conclusions were based on the curvature of light rays, or the deflection of light, which proved that space and time were not absolute, as Newton had claimed.

This happened on 29th May 1919. When Albert Einstein published his Theory of Relativity in 1915 in Germany, he revolutionized the framework of knowledge of physics, overthrew existing notions of space and time, and upset Newton’s theory of gravitation.

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Conflicting theories: Einstein vs Newton

One of the key tenets of general relativity is that space is not static.  The motions of objects can change the structure of space.

Einstein put forward a different view of gravity as opposed to that propounded by Sir Isaac Newton. As per Newton’s theory, all objects exert a force that attracts other objects. That universal law of gravitation predicts the motion of planets as well as objects on Earth. This law is being applied in space technology.

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But Einstein’s theory proves that Newton’s view of gravity was unable to predict all things, like Mercury’s peculiar orbit around the sun. According to astrophysicists, the orbits of planets shift over time, and Mercury’s orbit shifted faster than Newton predicted.

Einstein propounded that instead of exerting an attractive force, each object curves the fabric of space and time around them, forming a sort of inner well that other objects, including beams of light, fall into.

He gave the analogy of the sun as a bowling ball on a mattress, which creates a depression that attracts the planets closer. His theory did show that when the sun curves, it distorts nearby objects like Mercury.

Arthur Stanley Eddington, an astronomer interested in Einstein’s theory decided to prove it. According to him, the best way to prove was to observe and detect deflections or bending of light that the gravity of the Sun might cause during a total solar eclipse. 

The total solar eclipse occurred 100 years ago in 1919. Eddington traveled to the island of Príncipe which was close to the equator to find the perfect location from which to view a predicted eclipse.

He expected to capture starlight being shifted by the sun’s gravity, thus proving Einstein’s model of physics over Newton’s. The eclipse was necessary as it would be the only time he could view the light unobscured from the sun. He found the perfect spot in Roça Sundy, Principe Island.

On May 29, 1919, during a total solar eclipse, Einstein’s theory of general relativity was confirmed to be correct.

The solar eclipse allowed the two teams of British astronomers, one on the island of Principe – Arthur Eddington and Andrew Crommelin in Sobral, Brazil– to prove the gravitational curving of light theory, proposed in 1915 by Albert Einstein.

The island of Principe in Sao Tome and the Brazilian locality of Sobral marked the centenary of the proof of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity on 29 May 2019.

In Sao Tome and Principe, during the centenary celebrations, the Sundy Science Space Centre was inaugurated at the very same Roça Sundy plantation where the eclipse was viewed in 1919. 

Today the Space Centre stands as a recognition of the scientific, cultural, and historical heritage of the island of Principe. However, the plantation itself lies in a derelict condition.

Photo Credit: Raghu Gururaj

Three books commemorate the centenary: No Shadow of a Doubt by physicist Daniel Kennefick, Gravity’s Century by science journalist Ron Cowen, and science historian Matthew Stanley’s Einstein’s War.

Also Read: The Enthralling Southern Trail of Sao Tome


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