In 1905, Albert Einstein turned humanity’s understanding of the universe on its ear by introducing his theory of relativity. The theory introduced a completely new framework for the study of physics and forever changed our perception of both space and time. This revolutionary theory proves that space and time are interwoven into a single continuum known as space-time. It also proves that the speed of light within a vacuum is constant.
Listing the concepts in Einstein’s theory is one thing, but actually understanding the physics and being able to communicate the theory’s meaning and implications to the average person is another. That’s why high school senior Ryan Chester from North Royalton, Ohio just did something amazing. Chester created a video on Einstein’s theory that won the coveted Breakthrough Junior Challenge. The competition was created to inspire students between the ages of 13 to 18 to express their passion for science and math. According to Sal Kahn, CEO of the Kahn Academy, the challenge aims to recognize that “the biggest breakthroughs start with an insight, a new way of looking at things.”
The competition received over 2,000 applications from 86 countries. After being narrowed down to 15 finalists, Chester’s video won first place and a significant amount of money – $400,000, to be exact. $250,000 of his winnings will go towards a scholarship, $50,000 to his teacher, Richard Nestoff, and $100,000 to his school to fund a science lab. The scholarship money also means he can now apply to universities he didn’t think he could afford. “A ton of possibilities are open,” Chester says. “Before, I was worried about graduating with debt, and now I don’t have to worry about that.”
It wasn’t just his knowledge of science that helped him win, but years of experience in film-making. “I’ve been making movies for over 10 years now,” Chester says. “You wouldn’t believe how much film-making equipment I have in my basement. You can make movies about anything. It never gets old, you’re always learning something new, you’re always making something unique.”
Chester’s physics teacher inspired him to take a laid-back approach to the heavy topic. “I came up with the idea for the video on my own,” Chester says, “but I thought of Mr. Nestoff while I was talking. He makes difficult concepts easy to understand in regular language. I sort of know how he feels now. I was second-guessing myself the whole time, and this was just for one video. He has to teach and explain things to us for a whole year!”
Chester’s submission is impressive because he uses everyday experiences to explain the complex concepts underlying the theory’s two main postulates. The first postulate is “the laws of physics are the same in all inertial frames of reference.” To explain this, he uses a simple map of the Earth and its reference to other objects in space. He explains inertial reference frames by using a bowl of popcorn and a ride in a mini-van. Einstein’s second postulate is “the speed of light in free space has the same value c in all inertial frames of reference.” He explains this by using simple computer-generated imagery and a makeshift interferometer. The video concludes with Chester explaining why Einstein’s theory of relativity is revolutionary. Chester says it’s an “incredible understanding of how the universe works despite [Einstein] never having taken a step off the Earth.”
Watch Ryan’s video below and tell us what you think!