Thank Einstein for Your GPS—No, Really

theory of relativity inspired today's satellite communications tech

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Einstein’s influence on our modern world is larger than we think. Everyday devices like smartphone cameras, GPS systems, and smoke detectors depend on his studies. A new Wondrium series shows his legacy in current technology.

GPS navigation on windshield inside a car
Einstein’s theory of relativity plays a key role in the modern Global Positioning System, which has an array of 24 satellites that use precise atomic clocks. Photo by SAHACHATZ / Shutterstock

The legendary theoretical physicist Albert Einstein is well-known as one of the greatest minds in human history. His work with general relativity and special relativity was groundbreaking. Even if he sometimes got things wrong, the things he discovered and the ways he influenced future scientists are immeasurable. In fact, they continue to this day, from toasters to semiconductors in our computers.

A new Wondrium series, Einstein’s Legacy: Modern Physics All around You, examines how the brilliant physicist’s work persists in the 21st century. Ezra Cooper, Assistant Content Developer for Wondrium, spoke about the series and Einstein’s relevance all around us.

At Least, He Didn’t Invent the Selfie Stick

Compared to other series that Cooper has worked on, he found Einstein’s Legacy: Modern Physics All around You to be even more wide-reaching.

“It’s particularly and uniquely poised for the general public, because it has so much to do with the stuff we encounter on an everyday basis,” he said. “It takes a look at technologies that we all use or have experienced before: For instance, [presenter Chad Orzel] talks about the digital sensor in your camera and how that wouldn’t be possible without the photoelectric effect, which is sort of a quantum concept.”

The photoelectric effect is a phenomenon in which electrons are emitted from a material when that material absorbs electromagnetic radiation. It was discovered by Heinrich Hertz, but it led to Einstein’s theory of light—that light is distributed as particles that we now call photons. Without this understanding of quantum physics, we would have no smartphone cameras. That means no selfies and no pictures of our lunches to broadcast on social media.

“I personally am not a science guy: I majored in English,” Cooper said. “It was really cool because I felt like I could see how these sort of abstract or ‘science-y’ concepts were real and sort of experiential. It has reshaped how I look at these technologies; I take them a lot less for granted.”

On the Shoulders of Greats

The series regularly hints at the continually improving nature of scientific understanding. There was no Global Positioning System (GPS) during Einstein’s lifetime, of course, but his work and his successors’ work made it possible. This raises exciting questions for Cooper and other audiences.

“It’s also given me an appreciation for the future possibilities of technology,” he said. “One of the themes of this course seems to be the iterative quality of scientific research in the 21st century: building on Einstein, how much spillover there was. You can just sort of see this great big arc, running in the background of the whole series, this arc of discovery as these brilliant minds of the 20th century were picking up where others left off and taking it on down the road.”

Near the end of the series, one episode shows how Einstein’s debate with other scientists regarding quantum science is being continued in the realm of cryptography and the digital world. Cooper said that Dr. Chad Orzel, the presenter for Einstein’s Legacy: Modern Physics All around You, is equal parts funny, approachable, and understandable, which will help less scientifically minded viewers perceive the series’ information. Dr. Orzel expounded on this in a separate interview.

Einstein’s Legacy: Modern Physics All around You is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily