Einstein, Eddington and the Eclipse. A global history of the 1919 solar eclipse (E3GLOBAL)
PI. Ana Simões
Co-PI Luís Miguel Carolino
Maria Paula Diogo
António Augusto Passos Videira
Ana Matilde Sousa
PhD student (to be hired)
E3GLOBAL proposes to write the first global history of the 1919 total solar eclipse (CON2016, OBRI2006). It does so by focusing on the travels of the two British astronomical teams, which proved Einstein right. It scrutinizes in detail preliminary contacts, negotiations and interactions with national astronomical communities in Brazil and Portugal, and local communities of elite people and common citizens before, during and right after the observations of 29 May 1919. It also analyses instances of appropriation by various scientific communities in different local/national contexts, with a special emphasis on Brazil and Portugal, in the decade following the observations and their announcement.
The total solar eclipse of 29 May 1919 was observed by three teams – one British, one Brazilian and one American – in Sobral, the second city of the north-eastern state of Ceará, Brazil, and by one British team in Príncipe, a small African island, then part of the Portuguese empire, now part of the Republic of São Tomé e Príncipe. In the preparation of the expeditions and on their travels’ routes, all contacts and stops by British teams involved Portuguese or Brazilian people and localities, in all of which Portuguese was the official language (SIME32019, SIMSOU2019).
The British teams observed the background of stars behind the sun, and following a hard work of data analysis spanning the summer of 1919 confirmed the light bending prediction by Albert Einstein, one of the three predictions put recently forward by general relativity theory. On 6 November 1919, at the joint meeting of the Royal Society of London and the Royal Astronomical Society, their confirmation of Einstein’s astronomical prediction was announced.
The slow process of understanding and of acceptance of general relativity theory ensued, spanning disciplinary boundaries, scientific communities, and involving the general public who accompanied discussions through the press across the world. Einstein became a charismatic scientist and public figure, although relativity was misunderstood, ignored or rejected by many, including a considerable fraction of the scientific community. Starting from the mid-1960s, with the contribution of several astrophysical results, the generalized acceptance of the theory of relativity finally took place.
With few exceptions, the eclipse’s centennial celebrations and outputs maintained the pattern of commemorations and/or of history of science publications of previous decades. In the Anglo-American world attention was focused mostly on the expeditions’ aftermath and was attracted again by Einstein and Eddington, eclipsing the multitude of other participants involved in the preparation of the expeditions (STAN2019, KEN2019). Other scholars privileged the analysis of the expeditions’ impact on specific individual national contexts, with emphasis on the Brazilian context (BOPE2019, TOLMO2019).
E3GLOBAL shifts the focus from Einstein and the effects of British travels to the travels per se, analyzing them jointly in a comparative and interrelated (connected) way, with as much detail as possible, while giving prominence to a myriad of participants, professionals and lay people, known and unknown, in the convoluted process that led to the observation of totality, both in Sobral as well as in Príncipe. This joint exercise will evidence close relationships between astronomy, politics, diplomacy, religion and colonial empires, but also between scientists, communities and institutions, some more powerful and more visible than others, but all determinant for the construction of knowledge (GAVetal2008, SIMetal2009). A very asymmetrical set of sources for Sobral and Príncipe calls for a historical analysis that highlights deep asymmetries in terms of the participants' agenda, their agency and their ability to affirm their agency, presences/absences, travels’ impact and role of selective appropriations.
Based on printed and manuscript sources, including visual sources, and newspapers’ news across the world – E3GLOBAL grounds the first global history of the eclipse on various methodological lenses stemming from the intersection of social and cultural history with historical epistemology: it pays particular attention to the role of cognitive flows in epistemic change and selective appropriation, to astronomical encounters as instances of science diplomacy, as well as to the various meanings of invisibilities in historical records (FEESTU2011, KUCH2014, LLPAT2015).
E3GLOBAL involves members with strong international profiles from various disciplinary backgrounds, with experience of working together, and scientific and linguistic expertise suited to produce the first global history of the 1919 eclipse. Besides an original scientific component, it involves training at the graduate level, and outreach activities of international scope, including but not restricted to Brazil and Príncipe.