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Time to talk Einstein and science stuff

Posted by joeabbott on November 28, 2015

This post has all the potential of a long, rambling entry that typifies a lot of my writing. The kind that yells, “I’m not sure what my point is here, so I’ll just keep talking!” So, before I start, let me try and find my point to save us all a little pain.

I’m fascinated by Einstein and his theory of relativity, and while I could recite E=MC2 and state that he formed both a special theory of relativity and a general theory of relativity, and that he was somehow associated with starting the atomic program in the US … I couldn’t quite say how a German nationalist came to the US, how energy has anything at all to do with the speed of light, and exactly how relativity works.

Yes, I understood Einstein’s Jewish background and assumed he fled Germany around WWII, I’ve seen the diagrams of planets and the space around them as being modeled as weighted balls on a rubber sheet, and heard about mind experiment involving twins with one of them staying on earth and the other traveling near the speed of light on a trip … returning to find the earth-bound twin had aged much beyond that of her astronaut sibling. Yup, took physics in both high school and college and picked up on all of that sorta thing. But I never really got it. I just kinda understood it.

And so I spent a little time trying to rectify that through three books.

imageEinstein and the Quantum: The Quest of the Valiant Swabian

I enjoy a lot of perks working at Microsoft, but one of the best is meeting thought luminaries making tours and giving talks. Microsoft gets a fair number of these and they range from folks discussing cookbooks, to the preservation of wild places, to technology authors like A. Douglas Stone discussing his book: Einstein and the Quantum: The Quest of the Valiant Swabian. I was pulled to this talk with a friend who used to attend Princeton University and work under Stone. I don’t often feel like the dumbest guy in the room, but I was easily that guy as I sat for “light conversation” with my friend and Mr. Stone both before and after his talk. And while that afternoon was fascinating, let’s get to the book.

The premise of Einstein and the Quantum is to make the case that Einstein, who has an established position of disliking quantum physics (it’s bound up in his famous “God does not play dice” quote) actually played a founding role in establishing quantum theories, laying the ground work for others like Schrodinger and Heisenberg to make their breakthrough contributions.

My biggest hurdle in appreciating Stone’s position is that I don’t truly understand the argument or evidence. It’d be akin to me hearing that you’re having a neighbor dispute and seeing only your side of the controversy: I can only take your word and assume I’m hearing the whole story.

While I had heard Einstein’s dice quote previously, I just don’t have the appreciation for the depth of his dispute with quantum physics.

And so what I took away from Stone’s book was the details of Einstein’s personal life, his associations with other founding theoretical physicists and their seminal works, and the repeated message that Einstein participated strongly in the development of quantum theory both directly and through work helping shape other physicists thoughts on the matter. Which I accept as fact.

Stone does a fantastic job of telling a compelling but potentially very dry story in a lively manner: he’s engaging with technical and supporting facts, able to convincingly explain issues like the ultraviolet catastrophe, as well as cite published papers but maintains a crisp pace and not bog down into too much detail. For a smart guy like Stone, it probably killed him to omit some of the salient points, but it made for an engaging and very readable book.

In the end, for a book like this, you take away what you put into it. I tried following some of the hard science but, admittedly, was lost a time or two. I did myself no favors treating this as a nighttime read, covering the book over many many sessions … which causes one to lose their train of thought and often ask, “now what had I just been reading here … aha! yes, I recall …”

What I liked best was the readable style and, of the three books I’ll talk about here, Stone kept closest to the facts around Einstein and wonderfully filled in and colored my view of the great physicist.

imageAbout Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang

This was a bit of a toughie.

The book is long-ish (I listened in my car … 11 discs) and covers what I consider three areas about the nature of time: historical impact on human life; modern time and the impact on physics; and cosmological musing and the speculation on what time is. And while the book isn’t split like this, that’s the impact it had on me.

As far as the first section, historical impact of time, I loved the thoughts Adam Frank presented. I’d never deeply mused on how the impact of keeping track of time played out in history and had only appreciated “people got up and went to sleep with the sun” at its most anodyne basic.

According to Frank, time first started being tracked in monasteries as a way of calling the clergy to prayers or other parts of their lives. Timekeeping was only done as estimated by a “timekeeper” and even then differed from one place to the next. Later, with the development of clocks, time was kept at an hourly level and even then, it was only as accurately kept as clocks were made. With the development of the “town square clock”, a more regulated (if not just as inaccurate) version of standard time was established.

After town clocks were acknowledged, the railroad industry drove home the need to have a universal time standard and, with that, the time zones. Fast forward to the development of the minute hand (which may have come before the railroad standardized time) and the impetus for keeping time on jobs or at work down to the minute or sub-minute keeping … you can thank big business for that invention. And soon enough we end up with quartz crystal accuracy in timing and our computer calendar pop-ups telling us we have a meeting at a specific time.

After that section, the part involving Einstein shows up as he’s at the very heart of many of the current cosmological discoveries with his invention of space-time. While Frank’s book is ultimately about time, it was fascinating to hear how Einstein helped develop theories that pushed us further along the path of what time is and how it impacts us. Einstein’s theories, along with the groundbreaking work of Edwin Hubble and many others, led to the development of the Big Bang Theory, our views on the expanding universe, and a better understanding of the beginning of time itself … something we can get close to understanding but ultimately stop short of “time at zero seconds from the Big Bang”.

The last section started getting “out there” … as in, really out there. Some of it dealt with exotic theoretical models, like string theory, other parts addressed the multi-verse, he touched on “God” and religion a bit, and even entertained the notion there is no time but just a vast number of instances, separate and discrete from all others that give the illusion of history and future. It was hard to really appreciate this section.

From the earliest chapters Frank hinted at new interpretations of time and how the Big Bang Theory can’t answer fundamental questions or refute potential incompatibilities. To some of these issues, Big Bang Theory supporters have developed addendums to the model, like cosmic inflation, but problems exist that ultimately call to question the Theory and whether it’s a true interpretation of our universe and time itself.

Ultimately the book disappointed in that Frank never really gave me a satisfying answer to what time is. I very much liked the book for the first section and a better understanding of the Big Bang, if not Einstein’s contributions. After that, however, it was over my head and beyond my grasp; offering some information I liked (a string theory explanation) along with other material that seemed less well-supported and along the lines of exotic conjecture.

imageThe Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Einstein

I picked up this book by Gary Moring as I wasn’t satisfied with being merely a dummy but recognizing that I’m an idiot!! And, to be more honest, this is the book they had on the secondhand bookshop I frequent so it ended up in my basket.

My understanding of relativity was still weak at this point, so I picked up this book … which is about far more than just relativity and covers much of Einstein’s life and philosophies. As with Frank’s book (above), I found the earlier chapters the stronger ones and … I guess it’s just woven tightly into cosmology … the later chapters started to get into some heady topics that I broadly classify under “psychological”. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to a good book on self-awareness and paradigms on human consciousness … I just wasn’t expecting them here.

Given the parallels between this book and Frank’s, I’m guessing there’s a standard approach to cosmology (which is more to the point of the books than just relativity) that goes something like: introduce physics in the natural world, move to quantum laws, try to find a bridge, and then introduce speculation.

But I’d like to back up just a bit and offer a few words on the structure of the book and then consider what I liked and where I got lost.

The first section of the book builds up what we know about the natural world. It starts with the ancient Greeks (who first started applying the scientific method), and then moved to Newton and his fantastic laws that seem to describe our world so well, they stood as the de facto LAWS OF EVERYTHING for hundreds of years.

At this point Einstein becomes relevant. Now, a couple things about Einstein; first, his contributions to science really are outstanding and should not be underestimated: they changed everything about matter and our understanding of how things work. Secondly, his most science-changing theories came relatively early in his life and, after that, he served science better as a figurehead and statesman than for his technical contributions. And, finally, his celebrity gave him world-recognized fame and allowed him to share his philosophical views. He was an extraordinary man who really did change everything.

But, he may not have been right.

Just like many scientists before Newton, and Newton himself, moved mankind’s views forward, they didn’t understand everything and later scientists corrected and contributed on top of their work, current understanding and experiments are calling to question the entirety of Einstein’s theories and finding them wanting. The book suggests this, but doesn’t really answer that question … which is understandable as an answer is still being sought.

The book covers an incredible breadth of topics and necessarily does so at the cost of being complete in any one area. Much of it is informative and enjoyable, but other parts feel incomplete. A lot of the problems are that I spent less time studying the volume than I did just reading through it, page at a time before bed. So, for this book, I suspect many shortcomings are a result of how I approached it over how it was written.


If I had to order the books I’d say: start with the Idiot book and then read Stone’s Swabian volume. Frank’s Time book really stands apart and while interesting, didn’t satisfy in its later chapters. And for those who want to know if I learned anything about relativity, I’ll try to summarize.

Most of what Einstein said is short and snappy … and a lot of the mind-bending stuff comes into play when you apply his contributions to specific thought experiments: like the twins who age differently. The two parts of his special theory of relativity state

  • For any non-accelerating reference system, the laws of physics behave the same as in any other non-accelerating reference system. Meaning, if you’re sitting in an easy chair watching TV, the laws of physics are the same as if you’re on a train at constant velocity heading into Seattle. Both systems are non-accelerating and therefore the laws of physics act the same.
  • Light travels at a constant velocity independent of the speed of the source. Meaning, if you could measure the speed of photons from a flashlight you turn on in your backyard, they’d be traveling at the same speed as those coming from the headlamp of a spaceship traveling at half the speed of light. It’s non-intuitive, but when accepted, the results of a lot of experiments are now more easily understood.

Again, what Einstein said is simple compared to the implications. And why does this have the time implications as noted in the thought experiment with the twins? Think of it this way: if light is measured as Velocity = Distance / Time,  and we know that Velocity (the speed of light) is constant but the spaceship traveler goes a long way (Distance), Time must also change for the equation noted to remain balanced. And time changing is nothing we had ever considered before … it had been held as a universal constant.

You’ll have to read one (or several) of the above books to get more of the details but, let’s just say this is considered heady stuff for a reason.

Thanks for dropping in and I hope you have been enjoying a few good books yourself.


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