100 years ago – Goondiwindi total eclipse of sun finally proves Einstein’s theory of relativity

Albert Einstein published his Special Theory of Relativity in 1905. In his work leading to his later General Theory of Relativity (published in 26 November 1916), Einstein proposed the then paradoxical and counterintuitive theory that strong gravitational field would bend not only mass, but light itself. This is known as the Gravitational Red Shift or Einstein Shift:

This notion could be proved or disproved, Einstein suggested, by measuring the deflection of starlight as it travelled close to the Sun, the starlight being visible only during a total solar eclipse. Einstein predicted twice the light deflection that would be accountable under Newton’s laws.

The 1922 eclipse had a lot of scientific interest with teams of scientists from Sydney and Melbourne converging on Goondiwindi, in southern Queensland, a group from the British Astronomical Association (N.S.W. Branch) heading for Stanthorpe and a magnetic observer from the Carnegie Insitution setting up in Coongoola, north of Cunnamulla.  The other major centre for scientific observations was at Wallal in Western Australia where a team from the Lick Observatory of California was at the centre of an international effort.

https://www.slq.qld.gov.au/media/24639

The chief concern of the astronomers at that time was to confirm predictions arising from Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.  Einstein had predicted that light from the stars would be displaced by gravity as it passed close to the sun and a total eclipse was the only time that stars could be observed close to the sun before the advent of space travel.  Observations during an eclipse in 1919 had agreed with Einstein’s predictions but further confirmation was needed as the expected displacement is very small and microscopic measurement of the photographic plates is required to detect the difference.

A member of the Sydney University team at Goondiwindi, James Nangle, recalled the experience of the eclipse in an interview in the Sydney Morning Herald, the experience still vivid in his mind in 1937.

“A total solar eclipse is the most awe inspiring of Nature’s phenomena,” said the Government Astronomer (Mr. James Nangle) yesterday. “I shall never forget the spectacle of the total eclipse which I saw from a backyard at Goondiwindi, in South Queensland, in 1922.

“A scientific party, of which I was a member, rented a shop and we erected our apparatus in the backyard.  For some days we each rehearsed our tasks so that when the great moment arrived, scientific observation could proceed as rapidly as possible.

“When the day did arrive we were nervous, excited, and on edge. Just before the total eclipse, shadow bands, about three inches wide and three inches apart, raced across the earth like millions of snakes. There was a galvanised iron fence at the back of the yard, and it seemed to me that reptiles were crawling all over it.

“Meanwhile, the moon was rapidly covering the face of the sun. The light became a bilious green. Animals became uneasy, and fowls, thinking that normal night was setting in, returned to roost. Then, suddenly, day turned to night. We were able to look toward the sun with the naked eye.

“The scene for three minutes was indescribably lovely and eerie. We saw the great streamers of the corona suspended from the disc of the moon. Their colour was a combination of silver and pearl. We saw, also, the chromosphere, which can best be described as a ring of rosy light at the outer edges. The chromosphere is irregular and its prominences extend for thousands of miles.

“There were two incidents during that eclipse that I shall never forget. I saw a crow, completely bewildered by the turn of events, endeavouring to gain a foothold on the revolving arm of a windmill.

“And there was the man from whom we rented the shop. Before the eclipse, he used to watch us making our preparations, but he was certain that there would not be an eclipse. He probably regarded us as a lot of crazy scientists.

“I saw him after the eclipse, which he had witnessed from a meadow, and he said that if anything similar was likely to occur again in Australia, he would leave the country.”

https://www.slq.qld.gov.au/media/27146

The Melbourne journalist, John Sandes, writing under the pseudonym ‘Oriel’, published a poem in the Melbourne Argus, 16 September 1922 a week before the eclipse:

Back of Bourke and the Mulga there’s a township on the plains,

Where there’s nearly always sunshine and it hardly ever rains,

And the chaps who planned Australia were so hard up for a name,

That they called, it Goondiwindi and that was its only fame

There it lay, neglected, for a long, long stretch of years,

its streets were oft deserted, except by herds of steers,  

And the raucous shouts of the stockmen, and the pistol crack of the whips,

Were Gundy’s chief amusements before the big eclipse

Then the news ran round the stations, and raised the squatters’ hopes,

When the scientists got busy and unpacked their telescopes,

And the cowmen flocked, to the township in eagerness to see

The testing of Einstein’s theory of relativity.

There was Long Jim Smith and his cobbers, and Shorty, the lasso king,

And they gathered around the scientists in a tough but admiring ring,

And Old Man Smith from the Seven Mile leaned up against the bar.

And cried in a voice that was hoarse with beer, ‘The star, me boys the star!”

There were telescopes and cameras and gadgets by the score –

Then Baldwins crowd from Melbourne town brought just as many more.

Yet still they came, those scientists, in dozens and in scores,

Until the Goondiwindians were forced to close their doors.

By train they came and motor-car, by horse and four-wheeled trap –

Goondiwindi smiled serenely – it was once more on the map;

And the squatters and the cowmen, why, their knowledge scientific,

defies all explanation. It was simply- well, terrific!

https://www.slq.qld.gov.au/media/27147

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