I studied physics in college, while I was pursuing my electrical engineering degree, so when my wife, Marilyn, mentioned a local company developing quantum physics related products, I thought I would show off my intelligence and explain what quantum physics was. As Albert Einstein once said, "We all know that light travels faster than sound. That's why certain people appear bright until you hear them speak.” In my defense, it’s been forty years!
Fortunately, I have a lot of time on my hands these days. I found an Audible, Einstein’s Relativity and the Quantum Revolution: Modern Physics for Non-Scientist. That led me to a biography by Walter Isaacson, Einstein: His life and Universe.
I knew little about Albert Einstein, the man, and had only a cursory understanding of his work. I found the books incredibly interesting. His special and general theories of relativity transformed our understanding of physics and the universe we live in. Einstein was once asked to explain his theory of relativity in a single sentence. His response was that he was struggling to do that in a book. It isn’t an easy concept to get a handle on, although I did find one of his briefer descriptions. "When you are courting a nice girl, an hour seems like a second. When you sit on a red-hot cinder a second seems like an hour. That's relativity.”
For a slightly more scientific description to help visualize relativity, imagine rolling a large bowling ball and a much smaller billiard ball across the surface of a trampoline. The heavier bowling ball will create a large depression in the surface of the trampoline which will, in turn, influence, or curve, the path of the smaller billiard ball as it passes.
Now if you can imagine all this happening in four dimensions, three-dimensional space and a fourth dimension of time, then you can visualize his theory of relativity. Items of large mass, such as our sun, bend or warp the fabric of space and time. This means that there is no such thing as absolute time or space. They both depend on your frame of reference. The measure of both time and distance could differ from the perspective of the bowling ball, the billiard ball, or if the two were observed from somewhere else.
Einstein’s theory of relativity is sometimes referred to as his theory of gravity because it also redefines gravity. Rather than an attractive force between two objects, Einstein’s theory states that all bodies are in free fall through space, and it is the curvature of space that creates what we experience as gravity. Like the billiard ball, we are falling toward the earth rather than being pulled toward it by some unseen gravitational force.
Wow! Try visualizing all that.
The man was unquestionably brilliant. What distinguished him, and a handful of his peers throughout history were his insatiable curiosity and his willingness to challenge the status quo.
Newton’s law of gravity had been unchallenged for more than two hundred years, but Einstein envisioned a more accurate and universal explanation. Many of his colleagues thought he was crazy and were not so willing to give up on Newton, but today, Einstein’s theory of relativity is one of the most experimentally verified theories in physics. It is amazing what an open mind and a desire to learn can uncover.
I spent the last month or so learning about Einstein’s life and his theories and, of course, my poor wife had to suffer through more than a few discussions on physics along the way. At one point she asked me, what does any of this have to do with our lives today? I am sure there are lots of practical answers to that question, but the best answer is that it is less about the work of a world-renowned theoretical physicist, and more about how what I learned opened my mind to new ideas. It created a desire to learn more, and not just about physics, but I found myself asking questions about the geopolitical factors that led to World War I, Zionism, and spiritual questions about the creation of our universe. Good thing I have so much time these days.
I spent so much of my life either buried in work or escaping the world around me in fictional books, movies, and TV, I saw little value in learning strictly for the sake of learning, but I missed something significant, the joy of learning. The fact that I can stumble through, what is at best a C- description of Einstein’s relativity, won’t put a dime in my pocket, but it was fun to learn. How I wish I had embraced that desire to learn when I was in college, surrounded by the resources I had available to help me learn.
When I was publishing my memoir, I had a lot of people tell me that non-fiction doesn’t sell as well as fiction. “If you want to sell books, write fiction,” they said. That’s undoubtedly true, and like most people, the majority of the books and movies I have been drawn to in my life are fiction, but if I could offer a suggestion about a great book to read (other than mine of course), I would say, find something you know nothing about and read a book about it. If you have an open mind, I bet you will find something that interests you, and then see where that leads you.
To quote, Albert Einstein, "The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day."