Before 1919, cosmology was as subjective as art history. A solar eclipse and a patent clerk’s equations (Albert Einstein) changed everything.
The Eddington experiment was an observational test of General Relativity, organized by the British astronomers Frank Watson Dyson and Arthur Stanley Eddington in 1919. The observations were of the total solar eclipse of 29 May 1919 and were carried out by two expeditions, one to the West African island of Príncipe, and the other to the Brazilian town of Sobral. The aim of the expeditions was to measure the gravitational deflection of starlight passing near the Sun. The value of this deflection had been predicted by Albert Einstein in a 1911 paper and was one of the tests proposed for his 1915 theory of General Relativity. Following the return of the expeditions, the results were presented by Eddington to the Royal Society of London, and, after some deliberation, were accepted. Widespread newspaper coverage of the results led to worldwide fame for Einstein and his theories.
“Here is an infusion of organic matter, as limpid as distilled water, and extremely alterable. It has been prepared to-day. To-morrow it will contain animalculae, little infusories, or flakes of mouldiness. I place a portion of that infusion into a flask with a long neck, like this one. Suppose I boil the liquid and leave it to cool. After a few days, mouldiness or animalculae will develop in the liquid. By boiling, I destroyed any germs contained in the liquid or against the glass ; but that infusion being again in contact with air, it becomes altered, as all infusions do. Now suppose I repeat this experiment, but that, before boiling the liquid, I draw (by means of an enameller’s lamp) the neck of the flask into a point, leaving however, its extremity open. This being done, I boil the liquid in the flask, and leave it to cool. Now the liquid of this second flask will remain pure not only two days, a month, a year, but three or four years — for the experiment I am telling you about is already four years old, and the liquid remains as limpid as distilled water. What difference is there, then, between those two vases ? They contain the same liquid, they both contain air, both are open ! Why does one decay and the other remain pure? The only difference between them is this : in the first case, the dusts suspended in air and their germs can fall into the neck of the flask and arrive into contact with the liquid, where they find appropriate food and develop; thence microscopic beings. In the second flask, on the contrary, it is impossible, or at least extremely difficult, unless air is violently shaken, that dusts suspended in air should enter the vase; they fall on its curved neck. When air goes in and out of the vase through diffusions or variations of temperature, the latter never being sudden, the air comes in slowly enough to drop the dusts and germs that it carries at the opening of the neck or in the first curves. This experiment is full of instruction ; for this must be noted, that everything in air save its dusts can easily enter the vase and come into contact with the liquid. Imagine what you choose in the air — electricity, magnetism, ozone, unknown forces even, all can reach the infusion. Only one thing cannot enter easily, and that is dust, suspended in air. And the proof of this is that if I shake the vase violently two or three times, in a few days it contains animalculae or mouldiness. Why? because air has come in violently enough to carry dust with it. And, therefore, gentlemen, I could point to that liquid and say to you, I have taken my drop of water from the immensity of creation, and I have taken it full of the elements appropriated to the development of inferior beings. And I wait, I watch, I question it, begging it to recommence for me the beautiful spectacle of the first creation. But it is dumb, dumb since these experiments were begun several years ago; it is dumb because I have kept it from the only thing man cannot produce, from the germs which float in the air, from Life, for Life is a germ and a germ is Life. Never will the doctrine of spontaneous generation recover from the mortal blow of this simple experiment.”