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Surprising Physics

While few among us can say that we fully grasp the theory of relativity, virtually everyone is familiar with the equation E = mc2 as published by Albert Einstein in 1905. What few people realize is that the famous equation was actually published in 1903, not by Einstein, but by Italian industrialist Olinto De Pretto.

According to Umberto Bartocci, a mathematical historian from the University of Perugia, De Pretto published the equation E=mc2 in a scientific magazine, Atte. De Pretto proposed the equation and indicated that radioactive decay of uranium and thorium was an example of mass transforming into energy. It was republished in 1904 by Veneto’s Royal Science Institute, but the equation’s significance was not understood. “De Pretto did not discover relativity but there is no doubt that he was the first to use the equation. That is hugely significant. I also believe, though it’s impossible to prove, that Einstein used De Pretto’s research,” said Professor Bartocci, who has written a book on the subject.

As a result of his research on November 29, 1903, De Pretto published a 62-page paper entitled “Ipotesi dell’Etere nella Vita dell’Universo” (“Hypothesis of Aether in the Life of the Universe”). The paper was endorsed by the famous astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli.

Italian industrialist Olinto De Pretto in 1898, five years before he published the famous equation.

A Swiss Italian named Michele Besso alerted Einstein to the research and in 1905 Einstein published his own work. It took years for his breakthrough to be grasped. Ultimately, De Pretto’s contribution was overlooked while Einstein went on to become the century’s most famous scientist.

Olinto De Pretto was born on April 26, 1857 in Schio, in what is now the province of Vicenza in northern Italy. His father, Pietro De Pretto (1810 – 1891), was an architect whose hobbies included astronomy and geology, two studies Olinto would later take up. He attended the Superior School of Agriculture in Milan where he studied agriculture and geology with a major in agronomics. He graduated in 1879 with a degree in agronomics. Immediately upon graduation he became a university assistant to Professor Gaetano Cantoni, a Dean of the agricultural school. Together they developed methods that helped modernize Italian agriculture by improving methods of crop rotation and analyzing soil chemistry.

When Cantoni died in 1887, De Pretto left the university and became a director at a mechanical foundry mill owned by his older brother Silvio, where he worked for the rest of his life. From 1899 to 1903, De Pretto began to study the emerging field of nuclear physics and its relationship to astronomy. He focused on the theory of aether, a hypothetical substance that at that time was believed to fill all space. In 1906, De Pretto was accepted as a member of Accademia dei Lincei, a scientific organization whose members included Galileo Galilei. He died in 1921.