Thursday, March 5, 2009

Concerning Special Relativity

There's so much stuff to know! I'm overwhelmed by this fact, but there's also something strangely satisfying in never running out of things to learn. It's as though all of humanity is floating in a bottomless ocean; it's very disconcerting that there's no bottom, but there can be solidarity in that we are all treading water together.

This thought was prompted by a book called The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene. This is like a condensed version of a physics class I took in college: Physics for Non-scientists(we rounded the acceleration due to gravity to ten!). Greene takes science civilians like me step-by-step through some of the fundamental discoveries in physics of the past century.

One of the things that really caught my attention was Einstein's theory of special relativity. In a totally inadequate nutshell, this is the idea that the perception of space and time are relative to the motion of an observer. In other words, if I'm standing still and Jack Bauer is moving past me, his observation of the passage of time will be slightly different than mine; if we are both keeping track of the time duration via stopwatch, a tiny bit less time will have passed according to his stopwatch compared to mine.

There are various experiments done over the last century that have pretty clearly demonstrated these, and other effects. While Einstein's work is still considered a theory, it seems clear that his discovery is a monumental step in our understanding of how the universe functions.

What are the implications for the average citizen of Earth, though? It probably doesn't change much in a day-to-day sense. After all, I doubt I'll be too caught up in the thought that my loogie's perception of time is nanoseconds different from mine as I spit it to the curb.

In a philosophical sense, though, I wonder what this might mean for those who choose to engage in the knowledge of special relativity. An example of a potential conflict comes from the Christians; Church-going people have long been warned of the dangers of the philosophy of relativism. While much different from its scientific counterpart, philosophical relativity(as I'm choosing to call it right now) shares the possibility of paradox. I've heard many speeches about how problematic it can be to hold to the "believe whatever is right for you" mentality because some worldviews are mutually exclusive. In other words, Joe Christian might believe he's going to heaven because he has faith in God and Bob Muslim is going to hell because he believes in a different God. Bob Muslim, on the other hand, believes his god is the right one and therefore he will be the one going to heaven. They both can't be right, right? If they were, that would be a paradox. They both can't be simultaneously going to heaven and hell, right?

(Disclaimer: In the grand scheme of things I don't really know much about anything, so poking around in these old, deep questions is, admittedly, an exercise in failure...but one I feel free to explore anyway as an official part of humanity.)

Einstein's discovery 'problematizes' that anti-relativist conclusion by showing that yes, in fact, a paradox can exist in at least some form. Time and space are not, even though they sometimes appear to be, invariant and absolute. They are demonstrably relative to my own personal viewpoint. That blows my mind! In the Jack Bauer example from before, not only is Jack's stopwatch slightly different from mine, but, from his viewpoint, my stopwatch is simultaneously slightly different from his. Both stopwatches can't be wrong, right? It appears that indeed they can.

So what does it mean for the claims of the devout? Does it mean that they have no basis for insisting that they know what's really, absolutely true? Gee I don't know. I don't think physics could ever appropriately speak to that question. Perhaps the only thing Einstein can do for faith is inject a little freedom into the personal deliberations of billions of humans. Maybe he can encourage even the most sure among us to step back and rethink what we're so sure about.

Other than that, I suppose we can leave eloquence on this matter to the Prince of Denmark(and Harris K Telemacher for the steal):
"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

No comments:

Post a Comment