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Friday, May 7, 2010
Einstein has the heart of a teacher, he starts out slow. In the first chapter he gives a physical definition of geometry, in the second he defines geometric space. He then moves on to define distance, not distance in the arbitrary sense, like how far is a meter or a mile, but distance in the physical sense, how long does it take for an object with a constant speed to travel from A to B. If you can define that you can break it up however you want. After that things get trippy.
He starts out by showing that if a person is dropping a stone off of a train, the two will describe the movement differently, then he shows that if one person observes two pulses of light at the same time, a person moving toward one of the pulses will see them at different times. So now we can agree that time itself is relative to your movement. After that we start to define that if one person is moving relative to another that length, mass, and time are all different for the two of them. He even demonstrates that on a rotating body two people at different places will perceive time and space differently. That's some mind blowing stuff right there. and that's about the sum of what I was able to understand and pretty much the limit of my math skills. I forged ahead but most of the rest of the book just served to highlight my ignorance.
Once he had defined that he leaps into four dimensional space, the fourth dimension being time, so now we're talking space time, gravity and why Mercury wobbles in its orbit due to the gravitational pull of the Sun. Of course it's not a simple wobble caused by an oddity of gravity but actually the effect of the sun changing space time itself. Of course all the planets are effected by this but at the time of Einstein's publication the wobble was only detectable in Mercury's orbit.
In later chapters he discusses a cool imaginary experiment where if you were in an elevator that was accelerating at the same speed as gravity it would feel just like gravity. Then another chapter is a deep essay on how our shared experiences and even our definitions of before and after are just compensating mechanisms that our minds use to try to make sense of the world and the universe.
While I was reading the book my wife and I had an argument. It was one of those where I thought I'd said one thing and she thought I'd said another. Thanks to Einstein I was able to see that maybe it was possible that both of us were right, and equally as possible that both of us were wrong, or maybe she was even right but I was so mad I couldn't come to accept that part of the equation at the time.
So while I may never understand how to calculate how much a ray of light bends towards the red spectrum while passing through the gravitational field of a baseball, I've found that I can absolutely understand how someone could see the world a little different from how I see it. The universe is in fact different if you're viewing it from a different place.
So remember to support your local library, borrowed books are the best books. Thank you Einstein and thank you Michael, this was in a subtle way a life changing book.