The Wallal Expedition of 1922: Scientific Outcomes

13/09/2022 | 2 mins

Human knowledge grows incrementally, and sometimes by leaps and bounds - after 1922, human minds expanded.

Isaac Newton had given the world a clockwork universe, one which could be understood mechanically. It had rules which schoolchildren were taught to memorise.

More than two centuries later, Albert Einstein presented a radically different concept, in which human beings lived within and as part of a space which was a rippling fabric.

The proof of the legitimacy of that theory hinged on acute, determined and definitive observations. The bending of light photographed at Wallal on September 21,1922 was a tiny effect in spatial terms but it was there and had been captured.

The first scientific documentary ever made, The Sun Worshippers, took the news to a wider public in 1923. The film, made by pioneering cinematographer Ernest Brandon-Cremer, was shown in the Royal Albert Hall, where a London audience watched the news from Wallal for more than an hour.

Only two minutes is left of that historic footage but the news was spread far and wide by excited scientists who told others.

Astronomer Royal, Frank Dyson – who was extremely interested in the project – was informed by William Wallace Campbell, the leader of California’s Lick Observatory team at Wallal, that the results were “phenomenal”.

Campbell’s words carried particular weight. Not only was he regarded as the world’s greatest observer of eclipses, he was famously “neutral” with regard to Einstein’s theory. The photographs of 140 stars taken on the expedition, far more than any previous attempt to find photographic proof, showed that the space we, and everything in the universe, inhabit is itself a deformable medium, as Einstein had proposed.

Edwin Slosson, one of the leading communicators of science to the wider world and general public, sensed the possibilities of Einstein’s theory. He likened it to a “magician’s bag” and said we “may have to get used to all sorts of queer ideas”.

He mused that perhaps we would start talking about “four dimensions”, “clocks that go slower the faster they travel”, and “a future that turns back and tangles itself up in the present”.

The stuff of a century’s worth of science fiction had been born, along with innumerable questions and invitations to all sorts of imaginations.

Since the Wallal expedition we have been able to learn many things that baffled Einstein, who had said that black holes could not exist. When black holes and neutron stars, capable of emitting gravity waves with more power than all the stars in our universe, were discovered we searched for a means of detecting them.

The University of Western Australia, which fought so hard for the expedition to Wallal and rewarded Campbell with a Doctorate of Science for his role, is involved in that great work.

We live in an astonishing intellectual universe. In 2015, for the first time, we were able to listen to the ripples of a curved space. What had been understood as a clockwork mechanism has become more than rippling fabric. It has become something both disturbing and  exciting with endless possibilities.

The new book, Uncovering Einstein’s New Universe, by David Blair, Ron Burman and Paul Davies, will be launched on the exact centenary of the Wallal eclipse.

To learn more about UWA's celebration of the Wallal Expedition Centenary, click here.

Media references

Annelies Gartner, UWA PR and Media Manager, 6488 3229

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