Einstein’s 1905 success has often been compared to another young man’s ‘miracle year’: the period around 1666 when the 23-year-old Isaac Ne

Old master: Newton’s theory of gravitation was superseded by relativity Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

wton was formulating his laws of motion and gravitation, investigating the nature of light and developing the new mathematical language of calculus.

The old giant of physics being conquered by the new young upstart makes for a good story. But others had set the scene for Einstein’s work, and would help to take it further. Einstein particularly acknowledged the work of H A Lorentz in paving the way for special relativity. Hermann Minkowski gave Einstein’s work the mathematical framework of a four-dimensional space-time, helping the theory gain currency in scientific circles. Developing a general theory of relativity, a new theory of gravitation, was a more solitary struggle. Einstein himself felt that this theory, published in 1915, was his greatest contribution to physics. Newton’s worldview was based on the geometry of Euclid, fa

General relativity remains key to cosmological theories

miliar to us from school, where the angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees and parallel lines never meet. In developing general relativity Einstein realised that he would have to describe the world using a geometry formulated by Georg Riemann in the nineteenth century. In Riemann space, a triangle’s angles add up to more than 180 degrees and there are no parallel lines. We live in a universe where space itself is curved by the matter moving in it. General relativity remains key to cosmological theories about how our universe is structured on its largest scales, how it began and what its eventual fate might be.

Einstein spent his later years attempting to find a single theory that wo

Experimental confirmation in 1919 brought general relativity wider acceptance Credit:Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

uld elegantly sum up all of nature’s forces. But he was unsuccessful - partly because he could not accept that such a theory would have to incorporate quantum physics. Now physicists take a different approach, seeking to combine quantum theories, which describe how things interact at the tiny scale of subatomic particles, with Einstein’s theory of general relativity, describing gravity’s workings at the huge scales of galaxies and beyond.

Unlike Newton, Einstein was not comfortable with mathematics, and was often dismayed by how much mathematics was needed to describe his theories. Today’s leading candidates for a ‘theory of everything’ are highly mathematical, describing a universe of ten dimensions or more. Little wonder, then, that we prefer to tell our stories of science not in terms of maths but in miracles.

Einstein’s fame was not just the result of his work. His skills at influencing the media and his distinctive features made him the figurehead of physics. > more