July 07, 2005

Counting Angels on the Head of a Pin

I'm taking another crack at learning about Einstein's Theory of Relativity.

This is the second or third time I've tried to get through it, and it's been a tough bit of sledding. I'm reading "Relativity: The Special and the General Theory", which is sub-titled as "a clear explanation that anyone can understand".

Much to his credit, the great man does a good job of laying down the foundations of relative time and distance, and I have gotten past The Lorentz Transformation (Chapter 11), and more or less understood it - which might be the first time for me.

It describes a mathematical formula for translating quantities of velocity and mass from one base of reference to another (e.g. the speed/time of an event relative to a static location, like Einstien's famous embankment, versus the same event viewed from another moving location, like a passing locomotive).

All the same, Professor Einstein's best attempts to describe his theories have still left me struggling. Some of my difficulty could be due to his particular use of language, or the way the original 1916 text was translated into English. I have found many of his sentances to be slightly too long, academically detailed, and occasionally, just plain confusing. But, I feel like this is like an invitation to peek into a higher realm of understanding, so I must "press on" as my art teacher Tom used to say...

Looking for help from a more "base" base of reference, I grabbed "The Illustrated Brief History of Time" by Professor Stephen Hawking. This is the fully illustrated, updated 1996 version of his famous 1988 book, which traced the history of our understanding of physics from Aristotle through to the present day. Hawking's narrative style is light, plain, and infused with references to everyday experiences - easily-graspable metaphors which really clarify concepts which seem otherwise totally alien to our daily experiences.

So, why John, why? Weren't you studying religion or philosophy up until recently? What's with the sudden interest in physics?

I have asked mysef this too before. (I still haven't finished the Bible, and the Koran is gathering dust on my bedside. I feel like their all different facets of the same truths. The best answer I can come to is that studying physics gives me a real sense of the grand mystery of the Universe - it pulls me out of the context of my daily human scale and reminds me that there is so much still to be understood.

Perhaps other people feel this way when they comntemplate a religious mystery or a grand philosophical abstract idea. Physics and astronomy tend to do it most noticeably for me.

Not too long ago, while standing in line for a Pink Floyd Laser show at the H.R. Macmillan Space Centre here in Vancouver, I was looking at an amazing photograph on the wall. It was taken from a large telescope (maybe even the Hubble space telescope), and showed hundreds of little blobs of light densely packed together. Each light was in fact, a Galaxy, and the image was only a tiny section of a much larger photograph. I read that the section I was looking at was literally no larger than the head of a pin!

There was an old rhetorical, zen-like question, maybe hundreds of years old, that goes "How many Angels can dance on the head of pin?" To me, this question sounds useless - it has no meaning other than to evoke an impossible or fantasic, fairy-tale image. But perhaps to someone else, it has some meaning and spirit.

How many Angels, indeed...

1 comment:

Visage said...

Very old argument. Read Pascal.