The discovery of gravitational waves, announced earlier this year, marked the ultimate test of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Einstein published his theory in the form of 10 abstract equations 101 years ago. The equations did away with Newton’s theory of gravity and replaced it with curved space and warped time.
Within weeks, Karl Schwarzschild found a solution to Einstein’s equations. His conclusion was astonishing and almost unbelievable: it told us that time depends on altitude and that matter can create holes where space and time come to an end.
A few months later, Einstein himself found a solution to his own equations. This solution described waves in the curvature of spacetime that would ripple out at the speed of light whenever masses accelerated around each other.
For its first half-century, Einstein’s theory was controversial. Were the waves real or mere mathematical artefacts? Do gravitational waves deposit energy? Are the black holes hypothesised by astronomers the same black holes that Schwarszchild predicted, or are they some other very dense agglomerations of matter?
Over the past 40 years the evidence has mounted that gravitational waves actually exist and that black holes are the real thing. Thousands of physicists believed the theory well enough to devote years inventing technology for making the exquisitely sensitive detectors required to prove the theory.
Yet when the waves were finally discovered, it still came as a shock. The shock was to suddenly know what for years had been a belief and a hope.
Suddenly we knew that the waves existed; we knew that our detectors could actually detect them and that the black holes out there are precisely the holes predicted by Schwarszchild. The discovery removed all remaining doubt that Einstein’s description of space, time and gravity is the best way we have of understanding the universe.
The first gravitational “sounds” detected revealed an unexpected number of very heavy black holes colliding throughout the universe. These discoveries are only explainable using Einsteinian thinking.
So 2016 is surely the year when Newtonian physics was consigned to the history books, to be replaced by Einsteinian physics.
When, then, does Newtonian physics – with its absolute time, fixed space and lack of gravitational waves – still dominates the school physics curriculum in most countries? Why aren’t Newton’s theories supplemented with Einstein’s more general ones to give students insight into our present best understanding of our universe?
Recently, 40 physicist-educators from around the world converged on the Gravity Discovery Centre in Western Australia to explore how school science can be re-imagined in the era of gravitational wave astronomy.
All shared the vision that we owe it to our children to teach our best understanding of the nature of our universe, rather than the obsolete 19th-century science that still dominates our school curriculum.
We heard about three countries that are pioneering Einsteinian physics in the classroom: South Korea, Norway and Scotland.
Korean physicist and educator Hongbin Kim suggested that South Korea’s economic growth and innovative culture is closely linked to its massive emphasis on education. This has led to it performing much better than Australia in the world rankings of maths and science education.
One reason for Einstein’s absence from school science classes is that many people imagine that his theories require enormous mathematical skills. The educationalists at the conference emphatically rejected this viewpoint.
Others argued that Einsteinian physics should be taught for its sublime beauty. Carlo Rovelli stated:
There are absolute masterpieces which move us intensely: Mozart’s Requiem, Homer’s Odyssey, the Sistine Chapel… Einstein’s jewel, the general theory of relativity, is a masterpiece of this order.
Yet Einsteinian physics is more than a jewel to be admired. Einstein’s seminal works brought us photons, digital cameras, lasers, black holes, time warps, quantum entanglement and solar panels. His discoveries changed and defined the modern world. Time magazine declared him the Person of the 20th Century.
Education researchers have overwhelming evidence that children are motivated and excited to learn Einsteinian physics, and equally that they are turned off by a stale and obsolete curriculum.
Jyoti Kaur, from the Australian Einstein-First team at the University of Western Australia, showed that Einsteinian physics brought year 9 girls into parity with boys in their enthusiasm for learning Einstein’s physics and in their attitudes to physics.
Entering a new era
Gravitational wave detection has brought us a new way of observing the universe. Australians played a major role in the discovery and shared the Breakthrough Prize for their achievement.
Now we can directly listen to extraordinary events and phenomena throughout the universe. We have already heard vast spacequakes created by huge merging black holes. In a few years as more detectors are built and improved, the universe will be online with daily signals that will help to reveal the entire history of matter in the universe, from the very first stars where the elements for life were created, to the ultimate death of matter itself in constantly growing black holes.
In Norway, Einstein’s general relativity is part of the upper secondary physics curriculum and many on-line learning resources are being developed.
In Scotland, the recent introduction of the so-called Curriculum for Excellence has seen Einsteinian physics firmly embedded in the senior physics national qualifications. Australia is lagging far behind and its slow decline in the rankings tell of lack of innovation in the curriculum.
So why isn’t relativity taught in Australia? One of the greatest impediments to re-imagining school science is the retraining of science teachers, whose training was devoid of Einsteinian physics.
Given that education drives innovation, governments and education departments should recognise that the failure to invest in updating the curriculum is a recipe for economic decline and loss of international competitiveness.
Authors: David Blair, Director, Australian International Gravitational Research Centre, University of Western Australia