July 15, 2005

Grokking Einstein's Big Idea: The Legacy of E=mc2

Albert Einstein has really got me...

I had seen the phrase E=mc2 since I was maybe eight of nine years old. To me, it was almost like Mickey Mouse's ears, or Groucho's moustache. It was an enigmatic icon of popular culture; a meme that seemed to be all over the place.

As a kid, when I read the letters on the page of a book or wherever I first saw them, I interpreted the phrase as "E equals em see two". I had absolutely no idea what an exponent was, much less what Einstein's famous formula actually represented.

It is still a bit of a struggle for me as an adult. I rank E=mc2 as one of the most important discoveries (or dare I say 'truths') of this century. As part of my belief system, I'm sure it would practically eclipse all religious beliefs in significance, it I could just figure out what it was all about. (Perhaps I am as blind in my faith in science as I assume religious zealots to be in their religion. I am comfortable being that guy.)

In my most recent attempt to read Einstein's book on the theory of Relativity, it stumped me. I got farther than last time, but it still lost me somewhere after the "Lorentz transformation". So, I dug out my copy of "The Illustrated Brief History of Time" and have now almost completed it. (Thank you Professor Stephen Hawking!)

That little detour sort of primed the pump of physics comprehension for me. However, in spite of that, I still didn't pick up the Einstein book again. Perhaps part of me was still a little bit intimidated. I thought that maybe there might be some good tutorials or explanations for kids (high school through college) on the web, which could help me even more.

And of course there were. Most notably, I found a PBS web site for a NOVA TV program called "Einstein's Big Idea: The Legacy of E=mc2". This is a documentary which will air on PBS in October 2005. On the program's companion web site, there is some good introductory and background material which I would recommend to anyone before diving into the Professor's book.

NOVA | Einstein's Big Idea | The Legacy of E = mc2 | PBS

Explanations and the impact of E=mc2, from 10 prominent physicists

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...

July 01, 2005

Dear Akbar and Jeff: Go North!

Akbar and Jeff
"We must always remember that 'separate but equal' is not equal."

So spoke Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin during the second reading debate on Bill C-38 (The Civil Marriage Act) in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill on February 16, 2005.
(See the full text of the second reading.)

This quote is from the CBC web site's "Timeline of Events":
"The Liberals' controversial Bill C-38, titled Law on Civil Marriage, passes a final reading in the House of Commons, sailing through in a 158-133 vote. Supported by most members of the Liberal party, the Bloc Québécois and the NDP, the vote makes Canada the third country in the world, after the Netherlands and Belgium, to officially recognize same-sex marriage."

So, Canada becomes the third country in the world to recognize gay marriage. It's not quite a landslide victory - the vote tallied 158 for and 133 against - but still it's a significant-enough margin and makes a pretty strong statement.

This is not such a new development for those of us out here on the west coast of Canada in British Columbia, where same sex marriage has been legal since 2003, but this is pretty new federally-speaking; "the paint is still wet" on this issue, and there's likely to be a lot of noise and protest againt it from various social and religious conservatives who feel that their beliefs are being threatened.

I generally don't pay too much attention to CNN, Fox, or the other rightish mainstream U.S. media, but I wouldn't be surprised if the far-rightists and religious (funda)mental cases have lots to say about Canada's new level of moral decay...

More from the CBC:

A related story from "The Blog of Love":