Thursday, May 25, 2006

Einstein on Acid

Famously Sir Isaac Newton discovered his theory of gravity in an orchard on his farm in Lincolnshire. He saw an apple fall to earth and, in a startling leap of the imagination, came to the conclusion that the same invisible force working on the apple must also be the one holding the moon in its orbit around the Earth.

On the basis of this he worked out his laws of planetary motion and invented the calculus, an equation so extraordinary in its applicable that it was later used to take men to the moon and back.

Quite how the son of a Lincolnshire farmer way back in the 17th century - who only ever got as far as London in his actual physical person - could draw such universal and far-reaching conclusions on the back of such a pernickety observation is another matter. But then, as he himself said: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Almost as famously, and several centuries later, his disciple Albert Einstein hopped a ride on a beam of light and saw time stand still. From this (and other related observations) he came to the conclusion that the energy contained in matter equals its mass times the speed of light squared, which paved the way for the invention of the atomic bomb.

Perhaps we would all be a lot happier had Einstein not taken that journey into space and time. Then again, we really can’t blame Einstein for observing the truth. It’s what you do with the truth that matters.

The point to note about both of these illustrations is that they involved one man, one observation, and an extraordinary associative leap. Neither of them were dependent on the ideological world-view of the vast majority of the population at the time, not even that of other scientists. Newton travelled to the Moon and back whereas Einstein stopped time.

The reason I am pointing these facts out to you is to show that the nature of reality - and of our relationship to it - is not mechanistic.

In fact Newton developed his Theory of Gravity in opposition to the idea that there had to be a physical connection between objects for them to work on each other.

The ancient Egyptians knew that the star Sirius was a binary system: a bright, visible star, with a dark dwarf star circling it. They personified this observation mythologically, through the story of the relationship between the bright goddess Isis, and her dark brother Osiris.

This fact was not rediscovered by modern science until 1862. The two stars orbit each other, with a separation of about twenty times the distance of the Sun to the Earth, every fifty years or so.

Quite how the ancient Egyptians came to know this is a matter of speculation.

Ancient peoples also knew that the Earth was round and that it went around the sun.

Detailed measurements of the proportions employed in the building of Stonehenge suggest that the builders knew the exact circumference of the Earth.

How did they know this?

By the same means that Newton and Einstein made their discoveries: by an extraordinary leap of the imagination perhaps, followed by detailed observation and careful measurement.

Once upon a time we were all scientists.


1 comment:

Albert Alamitos said...