In his journey to understand and explain the true nature of Space-time, Einstein had to overcome intuition and conventional wisdom to get to the truth.
“It is not the depth of mathematics that makes Einstein’s special relativity challenging. It is the degree to which the ideas are foreign and apparently inconsistent with our everyday experiences. But once Einstein had the key insight—the realization that he needed to break with the more than 200-year-old Newtonian perspective on space and time—it was not hard to fill in the details. ” – Brian Greene
You don’t have to be well versed in the events that lead up to the emergence of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity to take a valuable lesson from them. The leading idea at the time to explain the nature of space, and how light interacted with it, was a concept called the “Luminiferous Aether.” (pronounced ee-ther) It was an idea that seemed to fit the intuition and experience of the scientists proposing it. Light is a wave, waves need something to “disturb” and travel through, light travels through space, space can’t be empty, so there must be an aether. Despite making sense intuitively, experiment after experiment failed to prove the existence of the aether. As science and technology advanced, the experiments grew increasingly complex in order to prove the existence of something that some scientists were convinced must exist.
Along came Albert Einstein with an idea: “Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler.” In this case, the formula that bumped the luminiferous aether in absolute space concept out of favor was beautifully simple, but represented an idea that was difficult to grasp and that challenged conventional wisdom. To us space and time are constant. We do not perceive them in our everyday life to be flexible, malleable or “relative.” However, according to Einstein’s Special Relativity, the speed of light is the constant and therefore space and time are exactly that: flexible and relative. The passage of time and measure of distance through space changes, depending on the observer. While it is counter-intuitive, and challenging to grasp, it is true – and has been proven so through many experiments.
We have seen a similar effect with things that are deeply entrenched in us but are challenged by evidence. At one time our intuition told us that the sun revolved around the earth. What seemed obviously true then, was shown to be false – but even now some people have trouble accepting it. For thirty years we have heard the same myths about pit bulls: they are dangerous, they attack more, they attack without warning, etc. More through legend, myth, and word of mouth than through direct experience, the conventional wisdom is that pit bulls represent a unique threat and should be feared and treated differently. Just like we knew that time wasn’t malleable, and knew the sun revolved around the earth, we know pit bulls are dangerous – it is intuition.
As data and experiments didn’t show these perceptions about pit bulls to be true, we moved the goal posts and the rationalizing explanations grew in complexity. When they didn’t bite more than other breeds, the benchmark was changed to biting worse. When broad statistics didn’t support the hypothesis, the focus shifted to individual anecdotes, and so on. More and more complex rationalizations for a thesis that just can’t be proven true.
“Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler.” The beautiful simplicity in this case is that thousands and thousands of people and “pit bulls” live together peacefully and safely every day. It may be counter-intuitive to some, but it is the truth. It has been borne out by experiments and it is reflected in the numbers. If we step back from the increasingly convoluted media narrative and just look at everyday life, the simple truth becomes apparent.
Everyone experiences time, but understanding the nature of time eludes most people. To know and learn the truth, we must defer to the people who have dedicated their lives to understanding time and space – even when it challenges our intuition and conventional wisdom. We must do the same with dogs. And we have a beautifully simple solution before us that controverts our conventional wisdom. The true nature of dogs and breeds does not change with our ability to grasp it.
To close Day 4 of Landshark Week 2017 with something nerdy and fun: in our many discussions about space, time, quantum physics and all the mysteries of the universe, Landshark, Maligator and I always understood that, as described by Special Relativity, the faster a pit bull travels through space, the slower time passes for that pit bull relative to a stationary observer. I mean, duh. But we never had a firm enough grasp to explain in simple terms exactly why that happens – that is we didn’t until we read The Fabric of the Cosmos by the peerless and amazing Brain Greene. Thanks to his ability to explain complex ideas, we’ll pass along the beautiful, simple explanation we learned from Dr. Greene, to you:
Your speed through space + your speed through time = the speed of light.
Bam. Simmer on that, give your Landshark and/or Maligator some love, and enjoy your Thursday.