EINSTEIN REVISITEDóA CENTURY LATER

By Sy Schechtman

 

Albert Einstein was voted man of the century by Time Magazine a few years ago. And this year, 2005, is the one hundredth year since his publication of his special theory of relativity, whose implications and potential applications are still being deeply pondered, feared, and even, by some, exalted over. Some time ago noted astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington was asked if it was true that only three people in the world understood Einsteinís relativity theories Ö."Eddington considered deeply for a moment and replied, ĎI am trying to think of who the third person might beí. And this is essentially my problem. I am not that one person to complete that holy knowledgeable trio, nor the thirty third or even some large exponential factor far below. However this does not inhibit me from nibbling constructively around the periphery of his work and humbly carrying away some essentials of its hopefully great import.

But one must first realize that his findings, or really startling speculations, are essentially counterintuitive, against the grain of common sense. Before Einstein physicists were estimating energy mass combinations with a speed equivalence far less than what Einstein dared to state. In Einsteinís startling spare but profound formulation energy was equal to the weight of a body or mass(m) times the square of the speed of light, a number almost impossible to contemplate. The speed of light, the swiftest force in the universe, is 186,000 miles per second, or 670 million miles per hour. Which translates, being squared, into an 18 digit number in his formula E=mc square, which would be equivalent to ten billion kilowatt hours of energy; one pound of mass times 448,900,000,000,000,0000 kilowatt hours, an output that a huge power station would be proud of. But, unfortunately, still a very small atomic bomb capable of all the damage done to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Einstein formulated his almost magic formula in 1905, in the same year that he published important papers on Brownian movement, photoelectric cells, and the behavior of atoms and Planckís new approach via quantum mechanics. But his status in the science hierarchy was not immediately elevated and his work little esteemed. He was not attached to any prestigious learning institution, or scientific laboratory. Indeed he was a third class level employee at the Swiss patent office, and had been repeatedly been passed over for promotion to higher rank. He had even been rejected, too, for a job as teacher at the high school level in Zurich, where he and his wife and child resided. But he kept his professional status as a valid physicist by his occasional publication in reputable science journals. In a sense his work in the physical sciences was "philosophic" with no hard experimental data to buttress his findings or declarations. But in time Einsteinís embrace of the speed of light as a prime element in our understanding of energy in our universe became acceptable to us. It became less counterintuitive and is manifest not in our daily lives but only in circumstances of greatly increasing speeds relative to objects stationary or much less mobile. Then there can be distortions in our sense perceptions in regard to size and shape of these moving objects; and time distortions. If you remain out in space for any appreciable time you will return to earth somewhat younger, by seconds or even minutes.

(No weight or calorie loss, however!)

What we have been writing about is the special theory of relativity, which Einstein later elaborated into a broader general theory of relativity, where he postulated the concept of spacetime, that time is part of space and that they are inextricably connected. And that the spacetime fabric bends and wraps around such areas of heavier density as stars and our sun and moon, and does not flow in straight lines as Newtonian physics would dictate. Indeed, in this scenario gravity is no longer a force, but a by product of the warping of spacetime. "In some sense, gravity does not exist; what moves the planets and stars is the distortion of space and time".

It is here that I that become entangled and confused in this hypothetical web and want to get off. Except to note that among other positive things Einsteinís work proved conclusively that space itself is empty. For all previous millennia it was accepted as gospel that a nebulous substance called ether, invisible and weightless, pervaded the atmosphere. What Einstein could not disprove, however, was Max Planckís tiny little quanta and the fact that the atoms and subatomic particles (quantum theory) did not adhere to the laws of relativity that seemed so certain in large mass bodies. This seemed to negate Einsteinís famous quote that "God does not play dice with the universe". And he spent most of his later years in a vain attempt to find a unified theory of relativity to incorporate these new discoveries into a universal coherent statement of physical truth.

Among these new, somewhat bizarre forces were the strong and the weak forces, which at the atomic level bind atoms together, exerting forces on their constituent atoms billions of times more powerful than gravity, and at the grand cosmic level the fact that all the elements in the galaxies are rapidly fleeing one another, so that we are seem to be becoming lonelier in space. Einstein, who was not a cosmologist, while he innovated the spacetime concept, thought in terms of a fixed, eternal universe. But now, as JBS Haldane observed "The universe in not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose". Even unto string theory, which many cosmologists today hold is the key to the holy scientific grail of a unified field theory of the physical universe ĖEinsteinís fruitless quest. That the basic elements of the universe are micropcopic filaments that vibrate at different frequencies and can manifest all the observable properties that we see. A far cry from Einsteinís "mere" declaration that the speed of light squared was essential to our understanding of all the energy present in the universe. But, for most of us mere mortals that was the liberating doctrine of the century, expanding our horizons to a better understanding of the cosmos and our place in a strange but marvelous universe, howbeit infinitesimally smaller in size we seem to become. Spiritually and emotionally we are enlarged, if only because it satisfies intuitively our basic natures. That as Hamlet said to Horatio, "there are more things in heaven and hell than are dreamt of in your philosophy" and that the Jewish midrash that God created the world ten thousand times before he was satisfied with this one, probably allows for not only Einsteinís work, Max Planckís work on quantum mechanics, and maybe even Brian Greeneís string theory; certainly Darwinís evolution is there too. But remember!! While God found his creation very good after six days of creation in the very first chapter of Genesis, by chapter 6 he was willing to destroy it in a world wide flood because of manís evil doing. Indeed the road is long, the work is never finished but the promise of a successful life is still on the horizon, aided by our great men of science who help in illuminating and brightening that forward path.