The Prairie Spy

Alan “Lindy” Linda

It has been one hundred years since a young Swiss patent clerk named Albert Einstein turned the world upside down with his preposterous ideas.

His third paper is the one we’re all somewhat familiar with, the theory of relativity. Pretend you’re sitting in a saddle affixed to a light beam tearing through space at 186,000 miles per second. You point a flashlight straight ahead of you, and turn it on. That beam of light will speed away from you, also at 186,000 miles per second. Ah, you might say: Now that beam of light is really going double 186,000 miles per second. Sorry, it’s not. 

The speed of light is always relative to the observer that is watching it. Some other observer, not traveling at the speed of light, would see something entirely different. The theory of relativity is simple to the observer; confusing to everyone else, because even time changes at the speed of light. (That’s the space-time thing, which physicists make up weird theories about–string, quantum, dimensions, etc.)

His fourth theory showed that energy and matter were different parts of the same thing. His equation, E (energy) equals m  (mass, or matter) times c (speed of light) squared. This equation showed why the sun, for example, despite the fact that it is sending energy of immense amounts out in all directions, can sustain this action. 

Hydrogen atoms leaving this reaction travel at the speed of light. They might not weigh much, but then, they don’t have to when their energy levels are exponentially related to velocity. A little bit goes a long way.

Finally, in yet another mind twister, Einstein’s general theory of relativity tied all this stuff together by involving gravity, space, and time. From here on out, most of us lose all ability to understand how the universe can appear to be in the shape of a sphere, yet be actually flat and curving back upon itself due to warps in the space-time continuum.

I once saw a cartoon of an astronomer peering through a huge telescope, which itself curved around and pointed at the back of the astronomer’s head, much like the space-time continuum curves back upon itself. The whole thing is nearly inconceivable to normal minds.

A famous scientist of Einstein’s time, notable for his genius,  was once told by a journalist that he was one of only three people on the planet who understood the general theory of relativity, Einstein being one, of course. He replied, after much serious thought, “I just cannot think who the third person might be.”

It ain’t me. I was at the University of Iowa in 1967 when I got my draft notice calling me to Vietnam. We were right in the middle of the general theory of relativity in an advanced physics class. Vietnam caused my engineering life to instantly become history. 

Although for many years this appeared to me to be a severe penalty to me and an academic life I aspired to, in actuality, I now realize that I wasn’t going to be the fourth person to understand the general theory of relativity.

Einstein himself came to vehemently disbelieve quantum theory, which responded only to math based on probability theory. Einstein wanted everything to adhere to one simple law, and quantum atoms bouncing around in a random fashion was not in his plan. “God does not play dice with the Universe,” he often said.

Einstein spent the remainder of his life trying to come up with a unified general theory, one which would account for some inconsistencies in existing theories where large celestial bodies were involved. (I myself suspected those inconsistencies, sitting in that physics class, totally confused. There had to be some reason I wasn’t getting it.)

But Einstein did get it. Half a century later, they’re still finding proof for his theories.

Me? I guess I can say that, if it turns out that God can indeed play dice with the universe, well,   the dice have been good to me.