Relativity is a generalization of classical mechanics that describes fast-moving or very massive systems. It includes special and general relativity.

The theory of special relativity was proposed in 1905 by Albert Einstein in his article “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies”. The title of the article refers to the fact that special relativity resolves an inconsistency between Maxwell’s equations and classical mechanics. The theory is based on two postulates: (1) that the mathematical forms of the laws of physics are invariant in all inertial systems; and (2) that the speed of light in a vacuum is constant and independent of the source or observer. Reconciling the two postulates requires a unification of space and time into the frame-dependent concept of spacetime.

Special relativity has a variety of surprising consequences that seem to violate common sense, but all have been experimentally verified. It overthrows Newtonian notions of absolute space and time by stating that distance and time depend on the observer, and that time and space are perceived differently, depending on the observer. The theory leads to the assertion of change in mass, dimension, and time with increased velocity. It also yields the equivalence of matter and energy, as expressed in the mass-energy equivalence formula E = mc2, where c is the speed of light in a vacuum. Special relativity and the Galilean relativity of Newtonian mechanics agree when velocities are small compared to the speed of light. Special relativity does not describe gravitation; however, it can handle accelerated motion in the absence of gravitation.

General relativity is the geometrical theory of gravitation published by Albert Einstein in 1915/16. It unifies special relativity, Newton’s law of universal gravitation, and the insight that gravitation can be described by the curvature of space and time. In general relativity, the curvature of space-time is produced by the energy of matter and radiation. General relativity is distinguished from other metric theories of gravitation by its use of the Einstein field equations to relate space-time content and space-time curvature. Local Lorentz Invariance requires that the manifolds described in GR be 4-dimensional and Lorentzian instead of Riemannian. In addition, the principle of general covariance forces that mathematics be expressed using tensor calculus.

The first success of general relativity was in explaining the anomalous perihelion precession of Mercury. Then in 1919, Sir Arthur Eddington announced that observations of stars near the eclipsed Sun confirmed general relativity’s prediction that massive objects bend light. Since then, many other observations and experiments have confirmed many of the predictions of general relativity, including gravitational time dilation, the gravitational redshift of light, signal delay, and gravitational radiation. In addition, numerous observations are interpreted as confirming one of general relativity’s most mysterious and exotic predictions, the existence of black holes. [GFDL Article]