THE DAWN OF A HUMAN UNIVERSE
There is a photograph of Albert Einstein standing beside the most famous man in the world, who happened to be the great comedian Charlie Chaplin. In 1931, Einstein was touring Los Angeles, and a chance encounter at Universal Studios led to an invitation to attend the premiere of Chaplin’s new movie City Lights. Both men are dressed in tuxedos and smiling broadly. It’s astonishing to think that Einstein was the second-most-famous man in the world.
He didn’t owe his worldwide fame to the fact that everyday people understood his theories of relativity.* Einstein’s theories dwelt in a realm far above everyday life, and that in itself created awe. British philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell wasn’t trained in physics; when Einstein’s ideas were explained to him, he was astounded and burst out, “To think I have spent my life on absolute muck.” (Russell went on to write a brilliant explanation for laymen, The ABC of Relativity.)
In some way relativity had toppled both time and space; the average person could grasp that much. E = mc2 was the most famous equation in history, but what it meant didn’t touch everyday life, either. People went about their daily existence as if none of Einstein’s deep thinking mattered, not in practical terms.
But that assumption has turned out to be wrong….
IS EVERYTHING RELATIVE?
The year 2015 marked the hundredth anniversary of Einstein’s final version of relativity, known as the General Theory of Relativity, and yet the most radical implications of it haven’t sunk in, not as it concerns what is real and what is illusion. We are all used to accepting relativity in our everyday life, though we don’t use that label. When your toddler draws on the wall with crayons, throws food on the floor, or wets the bed, you are much more likely to be indulgent about his behavior than if your neighbor’s toddler comes to your house and does the same things. We are also used to the mind’s fooling us about what our senses are detecting.
Let’s say you are going to a party and are told in advance that Mr. X, who will be there, is on trial for multiple burglaries in your area. At the party Mr. X comes up to you and casually asks, “Where do you live?” The sounds arriving in your brain through the mechanics of hearing will produce a very different response than if someone else had asked the same question…
THE QUANTUM AND THE APPLECART
Relativity was such a mind-bending theory that in the popular imagination, it seemed to go as far as physics could go. But this was far from the case.
The story of what is real and what isn’t took an uncomfortable turn known as the quantum revolution. This didn’t happen totally independently of Einstein’s work but as an offshoot of E = mc2, which states that the amount of energy inside any bit of matter equals the mass of the object multiplied by the speed of light squared. A huge amount of knowledge is contained in that statement, which applies to phenomena as diverse as black holes and splitting atoms. Yet, in a sense, the most startling aspect of E = mc2 is the equal sign.
“Equal” means “the same as,” and in this case, energy is the same as matter, or mass is equivalent to energy. As far as the five senses are concerned, a sand dune, a eucalyptus tree, and a loaf of bread (matter) are totally unlike a bolt of lightning, a rainbow, and the magnetism that moves a compass needle (energy). But Einstein’s formulation has been proved correct many times over.
The same cannot be said of the trouble that ensued from it. By portraying nature as endlessly transformable, with matter constantly turning into energy, E = mc2 raised the question of how this behavior works…