The outer limits of 21st-century physics involve arcane pursuits with strange and wonderful names like “M-theory” and “de Sitter universes.” Many of these endeavors rely heavily on Albert Einstein's explanation of how gravity emerges from the bending of space and time.
With the assistance of the Office for Creative Research (OCR), a New York City datavisualization firm, Scientific American decided to look for some measure of how often recent scientific papers in relevant areas of physics still lean on Einstein's 100-year-old achievement.
OCR examined a year's worth of the physics literature for references to general relativity or its conceptual offshoots. Specifically, OCR processed 2,435 abstracts of 2014 physics papers from the arXiv.org repository through a powerful text-analysis program incorporated into IBM's Watson AI system. The software extracted keywords that turned up repeatedly in abstracts from a section of arXiv on general relativity and quantum cosmology. We then edited this list down to 61 keywords, each of which represents a research topic that has grown out of general relativity. The arXiv's relativity section was scanned to discover which of the 61 words were turning up most often in the research reports.
The data visualization here is the result. Each incandescent colored dot stands for a paper that touches on at least one element of general relativity or its spin-offs [see following three pages for details on how to interpret the visualization]. For an interactive version, go to www.ScientificAmerican.com/sep2015/relativity-infographic.
It is apparent at a glance that Einstein's ideas are still going strong. Thousands of papers published every year make reference to his progeny. General relativity seems certain to continue to be a cornerstone of physics in decades to come. When we redo this data visualization 100 years from now, we are betting that it will yield the same pointillist explosion of color.