‘Crazy’ offshoots of Einstein’s theories topic of 2012 McDonnell Distinguished Lecture

WUSTL’s Clifford Will to take on relativity at annual series

Artist’s conception of a black hole pulling gas off a nearby star. (Credit: Credit: NASA E/PO, Sonoma State University, Aurore Simonnet)

Clifford M. Will, PhD, the James S. McDonnell Professor of Space Sciences in Arts & Sciences, will deliver the McDonnell Distinguished Lecture at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 12, in Room 100, Whitaker Hall, at Washington University in St. Louis.

Will plans to discuss “Black Holes, Waves of Gravity and Other Warped Ideas of Dr. Einstein.” WUSTL’s McDonnell Center for the Space Sciences, which sponsors the lecture series, invites the St. Louis community to attend.

Einstein and his ideas are thoroughly embedded in popular culture, Will says. The wrinkles around Yoda’s eyes were based on Einstein’s, Disney has a line of baby products called Baby Einstein and the cartoon character Dexter of Dexter’s Laboratory apologizes to a photo of Einstein in his locker every time he gets a B on a science test.


One of the most famous movie songs ever (which Will plans to sing) also talks about Einstein.

Although Einstein’s ideas apply mostly to the astronomical domain or the domain of the ultra-small, they do have some practical consequences. GPS systems give accurate coordinates only because Einstein’s theories of general and special relativity are taken into account in their computations.

The clocks in GPS satellites are moving at 14,000 km/hr in orbits that circle the Earth twice per day, much faster than clocks on the surface of the Earth, so Einstein’s theory of special relativity applies to them.

But the satellite clocks also experience gravity four times weaker than that on the ground, so Einstein’s general relativity theory also comes into play.

The way the time correction works will be revealed at the lecture.

Will plans to devote most of the evening, however, to two of the “crazier” ideas that came out of Einstein’s theories. One is that the interaction of two compact masses, such as orbiting neutron stars, can produce ripples in the curvature of spacetime called gravitational waves. Several gravitational wave detectors have been built, but so far there have been no detection events.

The other is that there are bottomless wells in spacetime from which nothing, not even light, can escape. Because they are invisible by definition, it is also difficult to prove black holes exist, although scientists have begun to build a very strong circumstantial case.

International teams of scientists have embarked on a quest to verify that both gravitational waves and black holes exist, Will says. Building and operating large-scale detectors on the ground, and designing space-based detectors for the future, they hope to detect and measure the waves, and to use those wave signals to reveal the hidden secrets of black holes.

Will’s 1986 book, Was Einstein Right? was reviewed in The New York Times and also made the newspaper’s “Christmas Books” list that year. The book, which focuses on Einstein’s theory of general relativity and the experiments designed to test it, won the highly coveted American Institute of Physics Science Writing Award, which is given annually to the best popular science book.

A second edition was published in 1993, and at last count, it has been translated in 10 languages.

Will’s Theory and Experiment in Gravitational Physics (1981) is considered the bible of the field. It was revised in 1993. His latest book, Gravity: Newtonian, Post-Newtonian, Relativistic, with co-author Eric Poisson, is expected to be completed by late 2012.

A fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences since 2002 and an elected member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences since 2007, Will has received many honors and awards. In 1986, the American Association of Physics Teachers selected Will as its 46th annual Richtmyer Memorial Lecturer.

In 1989, Will was elected a fellow of the American Physical Society, and in 1996-97, he was named both a J. William Fulbright Fellow and a John Simon Guggenheim Fellow.

Will, who has been referred to as one of the best lecturers in physics, received the 2004 Fellows Award from the Academy of Science of St. Louis for making Einstein’s theory accessible to the public and for making a significant impact on the public understanding of science.

A frequently invited lecturer worldwide, in 2005, Will participated in a 20-city public lecture tour of his native Canada in recognition of the World Year of Physics. He also has given public lectures in French in Paris, Montreal, Quebec City and Sherbrooke.

Will earned a bachelor’s degree in applied mathematics and theoretical physics in 1968 from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, followed three years later by a doctorate in physics from California Institute of Technology.

Will came to WUSTL in 1981 as an associate professor of physics after seven years at Stanford University.

He became a full professor in 1985 and served two terms as department chair (1991-96 and 1997-2002).

Will also will deliver a colloquium, titled “Testing General Relativity in the Strong-Field Regime,” as part of the lecture series, at 4 p.m. Wednesday, April 11, in Room 204, Crow Hall. The colloquium is also free and open to the public.

The McDonnell Center, which was established in 1975 through a gift from the aerospace pioneer James S. McDonnell, is a consortium of WUSTL faculty, research staff and students coming primarily from the departments of Earth and Planetary Sciences and Physics, both in Arts & Sciences, who are working on the cutting edge of space research.

For more information on the talks, contact Trecia Stumbaugh at trecia@wustl.edu or (314) 935-5332.