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Jun-23-2009 05:38printcomments

A Lesson in Einstein

"For those of us who believe in physics, this separation between past, present and future is only an illusion, however tenacious" - Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein
Courtesy: j-net.com.au

(CALGARY, Alberta) - It started for me in the 1950s with a TV commercial for Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. The animated commercial showed a sunbeam zipping from the Sun to an ear of corn in a field. The voiceover said that it takes eight minutes for the Sun’s goodness to reach the corn in the field.

It’s basic arithmetic. The Sun is an average of 93 million miles away; the speed of light is 186,000 miles per second. Divide 93 million by 186,000 and the answer is 500 seconds, or eight and a third minutes.

I didn’t get it right away but when I was about 13 I became seriously interested in amateur astronomy. I got a pair of binoculars and went out most nights (even in the winter) and looked at the moon and the stars.

One of the things I learned is that the stars are suns and, to appear so small, they were a tremendous distance away. Astronomers use the term light-year (ly) to define distance. The brightest star in the sky is Sirius, also known as the Dog Star, visible through the winter in the southern sky. It’s 8.6 ly away. A light year is a distance—how far a photon of light travels in a year. I’m not going to write out all the zeros, but a ly is about 5.9 trillion miles which makes Sirius about 50 trillion miles away.

This is where it came together for me. When looking at Sirius, I realized that I was looking at the star as it was 8.6 years ago, not as it is now. The Kellogg’s commercial made its mark. If the Sun were to explode as a nova, we would not know about it until 8.3 minutes after it happened. This is where the concept of what now is came to me.

Looking at the Sun, it is in our past, but even more startling we are in the Sun’s future. I looked out at the Andromeda Galaxy which is now estimated to be two million light years away and understood that when the light from Andromeda set out on its way to us, Homo Sapiens hadn’t even appeared on the earth yet. But more to the point. Our now is two million years in Andromeda’s future.


Enter Albert Einstein

On hearing of the death of his lifelong friend Michel Besso, Einstein wrote to Vero and Bice Besso on March 21, 1955, saying: “So in quitting this strange world he has once again preceded me by a little. That doesn’t mean anything. For those of us who believe in physics, this separation between past, present and future is only an illusion, however tenacious.

Now is a meaningless concept to physicists because it cannot be defined within physics. Says physicist Brian Greene: “There are no known physical mechanisms that singles out moment after moment to be momentarily real, to be the momentary now.” Just as there is no fixed place in the universe, so there is no fixed now in the universe.

Einstein’s best friend, logician Kurt Gödel questioned whether time exists at all: “The existence of an objective lapse of time means that reality consists of an infinity of layers of ‘now’ which come into existence successively. But if simultaneity is something relative, each observer has his own set of ‘nows’ and none of these various layers can claim the prerogative of representing the objective lapse of time.”

Einstein came to his theory of relativity through trying to resolve the puzzle of simultaneity, that is, how do we know that two events happen at the same time or are simultaneous? His answer, the Special Theory of Relativity, showed that there is no absolute time against which events can be compared. Consequently, there is no now that can be defined except through personal experience.

The simplest demonstration of Einstein's original idea is found in our GPS system. GPS devices could not work if it weren't for the application of both of Einstein's theories--General and Special Relativity. Time flows at different rates depending on the relative speeds between two locations (special relativity) and flows at different rates according to the gravitational field. (general relativity) A satellite is in a weaker gravitational field compared to us on the surface of the earth, so time for an orbiting satellite flows slower compared to us. The difference is small, but measurable. If the two theories were not used, the GPS earth position would be off by ten kilometers after just one day and become farther and farther off every day.

Astronomer Donald Goldsmith once calculated that the men who spent 84 days in orbit in Skylab, moving at a speed relative to ourselves of about 8 km/sec aged about 1/5000 of a second less than those who stayed on earth.

On the surface of the earth we are all in essentially the same gravitational field, so our nows are very close, but not identical. Think of airline pilots. They regularly experience both speed and a reduced gravitational field. Or people who drive for a living, like long distance truckers, railway engineers and bus drivers. Their experience of speed, overall, is much greater than that of a deskbound worker. The technology does not exist to actually measure that they are in a different now compared to a sedentary person, but no physicist doubts it.

We can go one step further. Think of yourself briskly walking down the street swinging your arms with abandon. Your torso is moving at a fixed rate, but your arms are moving faster. Although the time differences are technologically undetectable, our arms and legs are younger by trillionths of trillionths of seconds. Although the differences are extremely small, they show a fundamental flaw in our commonly held conception of universal space and time.

So, it turns out that even our bodies are not the physically unitary constructions we believe them to be. And Alice thought her world was strange.




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Daniel June 25, 2009 9:21 pm (Pacific time)

Make that , the story nightfall by isaac Asimov not twilight , been watching too many zones .


Daniel June 25, 2009 7:46 pm (Pacific time)

One different point on your article , i also remember seeing that corn flake commercial . My friends father help developed the x15 , and i had great interest growing up in rocketry . Also a keen interest in astronomy when i was young . I now live in a very clear remote area with little light pollution and have a decent telescope . You can see the rose nebula with the unaided eye here . I had a friend visit who had always lived in light polluted areas , when he saw what the sky looks like here it blew his mind ! Reminded me of the story twilight .


Daniel Johnson June 24, 2009 7:21 pm (Pacific time)

Daniel: I deal with topics like this in a lot more depth and detail in my website which I am in the process of getting set up again after having been down for a couple of years. When it's viewable, I'll send you the URL. If anyone else is interested send me an email to salem-news@gravityshadow.com I'm also going to post another piece on "time" in the next few days.


Daniel June 24, 2009 12:57 pm (Pacific time)

Daniel J for centuries science speculated about the moon . In the last century we were able to touch the moon and take accurate measurements , this is science , or from the latin root , to know or have knowledge of . When you state a star is a so many light years away this is speculation . You are presenting speculation and theory as fact . Humanity has not even scratched the surface of this galaxy . You are assuming the universe is uniform between this planet and the stars . There could be an outer covering on this galaxy that curves or distorts how we observe out of it . You do not know , man has NOT been there to observe or experience . Your numbers are pure speculation extrapolated from what may be very faulty data . So like a priest you are asking me to believe what you have not experienced and can not prove ! Show me the golden tablets . When i read your understanding of the cosmos , it sounds very Buddhist . Perhaps you are the reincarnation of a Buddhist monk !


Daniel Johnson June 23, 2009 8:57 pm (Pacific time)

qui vivi: What I think he meant was that a priest takes his religion on faith and that a scientist takes science on faith. The latter is true. As Einstein's friend Abraham Pais wrote in "Einstein Lived Here": It is true that since 1915 the understanding of general relativity has vastly improved, our faith in the theory has grown, and no assured limitations on the validity of the theory have been encountered. Yet no one today would claim to have a full grasp of the rich content of general relativity. Harvard cosmologist Sheldon Glashow describes the uncertainty and insubstantiality of science: "We believe that the world is knowable, that there are simple rules governing the behavior of matter and the evolution of the universe. We affirm that there are eternal, objective, extrahistorical, socially neutral, external and universal truths and that the assemblage of these truths is what we call physical science. Natural laws can be discovered that are universal, invariable, inviolate, genderless and verifiable. This statement I cannot prove, this statement I cannot justify. This is my faith." And, no, I am not and never have been a priest


qui vivi June 23, 2009 8:32 pm (Pacific time)

DANIEL J 6/23/09 1:16 PM - Daniel wrote to DJ: "you ask as much of faith in believing your speculation --- as a priest." Did he mean "as if you were a priest? .


Daniel Johnson June 23, 2009 4:09 pm (Pacific time)

qui vivi: Why would you even suspect that I'm a priest?


Daniel Johnson June 23, 2009 4:07 pm (Pacific time)

Daniel: Perhaps the dolphin does have complete understanding, but not only will we NEVER know, but we CAN'T ever know.


Daniel June 23, 2009 3:34 pm (Pacific time)

Daniel J BTW perhaps the dolphin has the correct understanding of the cosmos !


Daniel June 23, 2009 3:29 pm (Pacific time)

Daniel when you are talking about light years away , you are speaking of speculation based on limited observation interpreted by humans . You are trying to define the cosmos with very limited tools and observation . The cosmos is more vast than the human can possible understand , Einstein understood this . Any theories that are beyond human experience are pure speculation not science . Religion asks you to believe what you can not understand or directly experience , you are asking the same . The human point of view is only the humans point of view not as thing may really be . Again like the scientist in the past who observed the sun rotating around earth you define thru speculation with very very limited observation , the nature of the cosmos . The human CAN NOT define what is beyond our experience , but science and religion keep trying .


Daniel Johnson June 23, 2009 2:43 pm (Pacific time)

Daniel: I don't even know where to begin. I've never been to the moon, but I believe it is there and that our measured distance to it is accurate. If you don't believe in science, just so and I'll more clearly understand where you're coming from. What do you mean by "astral science". Sounds more like astrology to me. You write: "You are trying to define the universe from the human view point." That's the ONLY point of view that is possible! I could try to write a book explaining the universe from, say, a dolphin's point of view, but it wouldn't make sense to any human and I would be wide open to the charge of not knowing what I was talking about, having never been a dolphin.


qui vivi June 23, 2009 2:30 pm (Pacific time)

Is DJ really a priest?


Daniel June 23, 2009 1:16 pm (Pacific time)

Daniel J your speculations about Sirius are just that, speculation not science . Have you been to sirius or are you using limited data interpreted by the limited human brain ? You ask as mush of faith in believing your speculation as a priest . Astral science is not science only speculation from an extremely limited perspective , the human perspective . This speculation shows the same egocentric prospective as those who thought the sun revolved around the earth . You are trying to define the universe from the human view point , it can not be done . If you have not been there you really do not know . Just as man tries to limit God to there view point the scientific study of the universe does the same .


Henry Ruark June 23, 2009 12:01 pm (Pacific time)

D.J.:
Forgive me if I find this an intriguing way to encapsulate so many now still obviously in another,older,long-past level
of unsophisticated realities, especially in politics and social/cultural issues.

Can you shed further light in on-to-follow on how we can accelerate their basic human understandings to somehow move them a bit closer to the realities of Earth NOW in the 21st Century ??

The enduring reputation of Einstein in those same levels might just serve as a starting point.

Thank you for another one sure to trigger cogitation, wanted or not... !!


Daniel June 23, 2009 12:28 pm (Pacific time)

Daniel J Einstein's concepts were presented thousands of years ago in Srimad Bhagavatum . When science and religion were one . If you read it you would understand !


Anonymous June 23, 2009 7:57 am (Pacific time)

We support the ideas and concepts of Einstein as stated in the above article. We are a group that is challenging the current paradigm in physics which is Quantum Mechanics and String Theory. There is a new Theory of Everything Breakthrough. It exposes the flaws in both Quantum Theory and String Theory. Please Help us set the physics community back on the right course and prove that Einstein was right! Visit our site The Theory of Super Relativity: http://www.superrelativity.org

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