Einstein’s Latest Test

One of the greatest things about true science is the constant skepticism about accepted truths. Scientific theories are adopted, then are disproven by data gathered from experiments designed to test them, new theories to fit the data are developed, and the general understanding about how the world works is advanced, step by step.

So it is not surprising that scientific researchers continue to test everything: even Albert Einstein’s famous theory of general relativity. In this case, however, Einstein’s theory passed the test . . . again.

The latest experiment involved using deep space telescopes to look at the effects of gravity on space-time in the area around distant pulsars–dense, highly magnetized objects that rotate rapidly and emit beams of electromagnetic out of their poles. The pulsars being examined were part of a double-pulsar system that was discovered in 2003. The amount of energy emitted from the two pulsars is enormous and the two stars generate very strong gravitational fields, allowing scientists on Earth to precisely study the energy carried by gravitational waves, even though the pulsars are 3,000 light years away. And their analysis of the data they gathered confirmed one of the cornerstones of Einstein’s theory.

When you think about it, Albert Einstein must be ranked as one of the most extraordinary human beings in history. He developed his sweeping theories of special and general relativity largely through the use of abstract “thought experiments,” and those theories have since been repeatedly confirmed by real-world data that did not exist when Einstein first developed the theories. Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which addressed the effect of gravity on space-time, was published in 1915–before objects like pulsars were even discovered or sophisticated deep space telescopes that could gather data from dense celestial objects like pulsars were created.

How did he do it, and will we ever see such rare genius again? Those questions may never be answered, but in the meantime Einstein’s theories are ready to face the next test.

In The Public Domain

A few days ago we went to buy groceries.  In the coffee aisle I found a bag of ground coffee sold by a local company that was called the “Einstein Blend” and featured a drawing of Albert Einstein sipping a cup of coffee.  The slogan under the drawing read:  “An intelligent, medium roast blend of African and Costa Rican coffees.”

Albert Einstein, that unique, world-changing genius, probably the most famous scientist in history, on the cover of a coffee packet?  What’s the world coming to?

The value, and price, of being famous is that your image has value.  But at some point your image and likeness is no longer your own.  When a notable person dies, the clock starts ticking, and ultimately the right to publicity expires and the famous person’s image and likeness slip into the public domain for anyone to use.  That’s why it’s not unusual to see Abraham Lincoln, stovepipe hat and all, in TV ads for car insurance and other products of the modern world.  In the case of the Discoverer of the Theory of Relativity, who died in 1955, a 2012 court ruling concluded that his post mortem publicity rights had expired.  As a result, Albert Einstein’s grandfatherly likeness, with that familiar halo of hair and wise, kindly look in his eyes, is now fair game for advertisers.

At least coffee is a product that Einstein actually used (and enjoyed), unlike Abe Lincoln and car insurance.  And by the way, I bought a pack of the Einstein Blend — how could I not? — and it’s pretty good coffee.  Drinking it, I feel smarter already.


Einstein On A Toilet Seat

I was in the bathroom of my hotel room in New York City and noticed some printing on the toilet seat.  Because toilet seats aren’t the normal forum for announcements by hotel management, I was intrigued and just had to read it.

The announcement stated:  “In an effort to increase sustainability, this auto flush has been deactivated.  Please press the button to the left to flush.”  And beneath that statement the notice read:  “‘The environment is everything that isn’t me.’ – Albert Einstein.”

Did Einstein ever actually say that?  It’s not easy to confirm whether he did or he didn’t.  A Google search will send you to lots of different websites where you can buy t-shirts, posters, or refrigerator magnets with that quote attributed to the Father of Relativity and printed over some peaceful pastoral scene, and also a lot of general quote websites where you can go to find a quote that fits every occasion (including, apparently, a notice on a toilet seat).  But those quote websites don’t seem to provide any attribution for the claimed Einstein quote.  The closest I could find was a website that referred to the Boston Vegetarian Society as the source for the quote.  But I’ve seen no citations to a book or published writing, or a speech given on a particular day, or one of Einstein’s letters.

Did one of the greatest minds in human history actually say: “The environment is everything that isn’t me”?  As is true with so many facially plausible quotes that are attributed to historical figures and thrown around like footballs these days, it’s really difficult to say.  But we can certainly be reasonably confident of one thing:  if Albert Einstein did say it, he probably never dreamed that it would end up on the toilet seat of a Manhattan hotel room as part of an announcement justifying a reversion to manual flushing.



On Genius

“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.” — Confucius

“To know, is to know that you know nothing.  That is the meaning of true knowledge.” — Socrates

hqdefault1“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” — William Shakespeare

“I have no special talent.  I am only passionately curious.” — Albert Einstein

“I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our own intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being.” — Albert Einstein

“Wile E. Coyote — Super Genius!” — Wile E. Coyote

“Actually, throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart.” — President Donald Trump

“I went from VERY successful businessman, to top T.V. Star . . . to President of the United States (on my first try). I think that would qualify as not smart, but genius . . . and a very stable genius at that!” — President Donald Trump

The Gravitational Waves Of Uncle Albert

Somewhere out in the far reaches of space, 1.3 billion light years from Earth, two incredibly dense black holes spin around each other, racing at incredible speeds and moving ever closer to their inevitable collision.  Finally, their event horizons merge, and they become one.

At the moment of contact, the black holes lose mass and emit gravitational waves — bursts of pure energy so powerful that they warp space time.  It sounds like a fantastic, far-fetched scenario, but it’s not.  This week, scientists announced that they were able to detect, and record, the gravitational waves here on Earth, on special antennae.  You can listen to the chirp-like sound of the gravitational waves through a link here.

albert-einsteinThe confirmation of the existence of gravitational waves in this scenario is yet another confirmation of the theories of relativity of Albert Einstein.  It’s extraordinary to think that one man, through use of thought experiments and applied mathematics, could have been such a profound scientific visionary and been able to predict so much — predictions that have been confirmed, time and time again, by others who followed in his path.  We tend to think of Einstein as a kind of rumpled, wild-haired, avuncular figure, but inside lurked a mind and spirit so unique and far-sighted and brilliant that he was able to develop theories that explain some of the most amazing elements of our universe.

Gravitational waves, the bending and stretching of space time, the changes in relative time as a traveler approached the speed of light — all of these, and more, were born in the fertile brain of Uncle Albert.  This week we learned, yet again, that the story of Albert Einstein is one of the great stories in the history of the human species, and it reaffirms that one person, through hard work and brilliant insight, can make all the difference.

After 100 Years, It’s All Relative

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity.  First published in 1915, covering the intersection of gravity, space, time, and the speed of light, and supported by a mass of hard-core mathematics beyond the ken of most mortal beings, general relativity stands with evolution as one of the most well-known, universally recognized scientific theories in history.

80619-004-9b9d0d26Even though the theory of general relativity has hit the century mark, it’s still the subject of some controversy — including whether it’s the exclusive brainchild of Einstein, or whether it was the product of ideas and concepts contributed by a group of scientists and physicists.  A recent piece tracks the history, and the controversy, and the potential contributions by others.  It’s a fascinating tale.

What’s most interesting about the theory in my view is that it began as a thought experiment that captured Einstein’s imagination, in which he considered whether, if he were seated in a windowless, doorless box, he would be able to tell the difference between being subject to gravity or being exposed to the sensations of acceleration.  It tells you something about Einstein that he even came up with such an idea in the first place, but that curious thought experiment ultimately produced a theory that predicted the bending of light by gravitational bodies, was confirmed by measurements conducted during an eclipse a few years later, and helped to make space flight feasible.  The theory of general relativity, coupled with his trademark unkempt mane of hair, made Einstein the most famous scientist in the world.

Since 1915, the theory of general relativity has withstood countless tests and challenges and experiments.  It’s still pretty spry for a 100-year-old.


Is Grandpa Safe?

One of the oldest themes in science fiction is time travel, and one of the oldest story lines in the time travel genre deals with the paradoxes of going back in time.  What if you went back into time and, like Marty McFly, did something that changed the future course of events so dramatically that you never actually came into being?

It’s called the Grandfather Paradox.  Specifically, what if you went back in time and killed your own grandfather before he had the chance to father your mother or your father?  And if you did, and your parents and, ultimately, you never existed as a result, then how could you have been here to go back into time and kill dear old Granddad in the first place?

Science fiction deals with this in all kinds of interesting ways — postulating, for example, the creation of parallel universes every time a back-in-time traveler messes with the existing continuum of events and offs an ancestor — but science isn’t so easily satisfied.  It’s clear that forward time travel actually can occur under Einstein’s theory of relativity and concepts of time dilation; tests have proven that as a spacecraft’s speed increases, a clock on board the ship runs more slowly than a clock back on Earth.  In short, blast off and travel fast and far enough, and you’ll return to a world where your children are older than you are.

Einstein’s theories also suggest that travel back in time is theoretically possible, because the interaction between gravity and spacetime means that if a sufficient gravitational field existed, a closed timelike curve could be created and the time traveler could travel along that curve to the past.  Some scientists, like Stephen Hawking, argue that the Grandfather Paradox means that backward time travel and therefore closed timelike curves cannot exist, and they puckishly argue that the fact that we aren’t currently besieged by future beings who’ve figured out how to journey back in time means such travel is not possible.

Other scientists, however, accept the possibility of moving along a closed timelike curve and have been testing theories that would prevent Grandpa’s untimely demise.  One theory focuses on consistency, and another on correlation.  The “consistency” theory argues that any object that enters a closed timelike curve must exit the curve with the same properties — which evidently means that, thanks to your self-directed consistency, you couldn’t go back and kill your grandfather and prevent your own existence.  Scientists have actually tried to test this theory, using polarized photons launched through a time loop simulator, and the tests showed that the simulated time-traveling photons had the same properties the theory would predict.  Another theory contemplates a kind of “post-selection” concept that (I think) means that you couldn’t go back into time unless you had already gone back into time and were therefore part of the causal chain that created the world in which you live.  The time loop is closed, and whatever you would do on your backward trip would inevitably be what you had already done.

Like everything in quantum physics, it’s all very weird and confusing, and of course the theoretical physicists don’t explain why anyone would want to go back into time and murder their own grandfather, anyway.  But the upshot of the theories and testing seems to be that, even if backward time travel could occur, Grandpa apparently is safe.  All grandfathers and potential future grandfathers can now breathe a sigh of relief.

A Time Travel Update

Scientists have conducted experiments that have confirmed that individual photons cannot travel faster than the speed of light in a vacuum.

For a time, it was thought that photons might be able to travel faster than the speed of light.  That prospect left open some tantalizing possibilities, because under Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, if an object could travel faster than the speed of light it could evade principles of causality.  That is, an event’s effect, by traveling faster than the speed of light, could theoretically precede its cause, and time travel conceivably could occur.  The most recent experiments have ruled out that possibility, as least as it relates to photons.

Fortunately for fans of time travel everywhere (and everywhen), Einstein’s theories still permit random intersections of curved space-time continuums — i.e., wormholes — through which time travel could occur.  Thus, it remains possible that Star Trek‘s Dr. Leonard McCoy could inadvertently cause the Nazis to win World War II and that H.G. Wells’ Time Traveller could save Weena from the Morlocks, and you should still take care not to accidentally kill an ancestor and thereby prevent your own birth.