Even the best scientists benefit from collaboration

Many of the best brains in astrophysics have helped to confirm the last missing prediction of general relativity. This is again testimony to the extraordinary genius of Albert Einstein

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 February, 2016, 11:01pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 February, 2016, 11:05pm

An interesting fact about the groundbreaking paper just published on the first detection of gravitational waves is the large number of collaborators from a multitude of institutions around the world. More than 1,000 scientists were involved in the project, and even tiny Hong Kong can boast of one: 29-year-old Dr Tjonnie Li, a Chinese University physicist and a specialist in gravitational wave signals.

So many of the best brains in today’s astrophysics have helped to confirm the last missing prediction of general relativity, which was the work of one man. This is again testimony to the extraordinary genius of Albert Einstein.

So here we see in full view two conflicting images of science: a highly collaborative effort and the work of lone geniuses.

The truth is that even Einstein did not work alone. Special relativity, whose theory he published in 1905, was already “in the air” with several great mathematicians and physicists homing in on key aspects of it.

General relativity, published more than a decade later, is generally considered a singular work of scientific imagination by one man. But even some of its consequences such as black holes – which were key to the latest discovery – had to be worked out by other scientists.

Einstein did not believe solutions to his non-linear field equation would be forthcoming. Therefore he did not believe in black holes. He was surprised when a German physicist called Karl Schwarzschild showed a solution in a special case which does require the existence of black holes.

The latest discovery was based on a collision of two black holes 1.3 billion light years ago which sent waves rippling through space-time. They reached the earth on September 14 last year, where the event was recorded by scientists.

Einstein laid the groundwork that has revolutionised modern physics. But even this great genius needed scientists over a century to help connect all the dots his theory has drawn up.