Understanding Einstein: The Special Theory of Relativity

This course offers you the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the life and work of the young Albert Einstein and especially his mind-bending special theory of relativity.

About The Course

In this course we will seek to “understand Einstein,” especially focusing on the special theory of relativity that Albert Einstein, as a 26-year-old patent clerk, introduced in his so-called “miracle year” of 1905. Our goal will be to go behind the myth-making and beyond the popularized presentations of relativity in order to gain a deeper understanding of both Einstein the person and the concepts, predictions, and strange paradoxes of his theory. Some of the questions we will address include: How did Einstein come up with his ideas? What was the nature of his genius? What is the meaning of relativity? What’s “special” about the special theory of relativity? Why did the theory initially seem to be dead on arrival? What does it mean to say that time is the “fourth dimension”? Can time actually run more slowly for one person than another, and the size of things change depending on their velocity? Is time travel possible, and if so, how? Why can’t things travel faster than the speed of light? Is it possible to travel to the center of the galaxy and return in one lifetime? Is there any evidence that definitively confirms the theory, or is it mainly speculation? Why didn’t Einstein win the Nobel Prize for the theory of relativity?

Students may choose one of three approaches to the course: a more quantitative approach, a more qualitative approach, or an auditing approach. The more quantitative approach will include weekly problem sets, while the more qualitative approach will include a creative project relating to the young Einstein and/or the special theory of relativity.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Will I get a Statement of Accomplishment after completing this class?

    Yes. Students who successfully complete the class will receive a Statement of Accomplishment signed by the instructor.

  • What resources will I need for this class?

    For this course, all you need is an Internet connection and the willingness to think.

  • What is the coolest thing I'll learn if I take this class? Learning how an unknown patent clerk came up with the special theory of relativity is certainly a fascinating story. And there are many cool things we will learn that come out of the theory itself, such as that one person can age significantly more slowly than another, that it's possible to travel to the center of the galaxy and back in one lifetime, and that time travel into the future is possible. But perhaps the coolest thing is simply to learn more about, in Einstein's words, "the mystery ... of the marvelous structure of reality."

Recommended Background

No prior knowledge is required. Anyone who is willing to engage with the material is welcome. (For students choosing the more quantitative approach, a familiarity with basic algebra will be helpful. But a brief math review will be provided.)