Taedium Edax Rerum

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Lunchtime Doubly So

Posted by Doug on May 1, 2009

On a whim, I picked up a copy of Discover Presents: Einstein, an 88-page magazine dedicated to the world’s most famous theoretical physicist.  My taste in ‘entertainment’ is eclectic: most of the time it is one variety or another of pure fantasy, but frequently it slides across the spectrum to simple reality.  Today, it is reality.

An interesting idea, briefly mentioned in one of the articles, is that Einstein was the last great scientist of the era of science where one individual could have such a massive impact on the whole of science.  Most progress in science these days, especially theoretical physics, is a collaborative effort between many groups, not the sudden, paradigm-shifting brilliance of one individual.  Then again, “paradigm-shifting brilliance” cannot emerge without an established paradigm to shift away from…  I think there is more than enough room at the tiniest of scales (paradoxically!), where quantum effects rule, to allow the emergence of another Einstein.  (Unfortunately, I cannot support that belief with any form of logic or reason…maybe it is a lingering sense of romanticism.)

In the article “Time May Not Exist”, there is an interesting quote which is used to illustrate an interesting idea.  A quantum mechanical engineer from MIT, Seth Lloyd, was at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, where they keep the atomic clocks that are used as a standard in the USA.  He made a comment about the atomic clocks measuring time accurately, and was told: “Our clocks do not measure time…No, time is defined to be what our clocks measure.” In other words, time is an arbitrary concept that does not exist at the quantum level, but exists merely as an emergent property at the macroscopic level of microbes, humans, and planets, similar, I think (I could be waaaaaaay off here) to the way that a molecule of dihydrogen monoxide is not wet, but a body of water is very much so.  Water’s wetness is an emergent property of the molecular features of water molecules, and time is similarly an emergent property of the quantum features of the cosmos.  “The distinction between past, present, and future,” Einstein wrote, “is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”

Lunchtime doubly so.

I’ve read quite a bit about Einstein in the past—I knew he had patented a refrigerator with a colleague named Szilard back in the day, for example—but there were a few surprises in the essays and articles in this magazine.  For example, I didn’t know that even though it was his advice that convinced President Roosevelt to have America build the atomic bomb before the Nazis could, Einstein never worked directly on the Manhattan Project because Einstein’s pacifism was considered a security risk (I knew he wasn’t on the Manhattan Project, I just wasn’t sure why.  And the why of things is very, very interesting at times).

So, yeah, I find reality interesting at times.  I no longer think I will ever contribute in any meaningful way to the progress of science (I lack, among other things, the patience to follow an idea through to…ooh, shiny!), but I do enjoy reading about the discoveries that are made as science marches ever onwards, especially when those discoveries are explained in layman’s terms, or at the very least, in terms that require only a modicum of especial knowledge.  So in the end, I suppose this Discover Presents: Einstein was clearly not the definitive story of the one Albert Einstein, but it was an amusing enough way to spend the afternoon.

And it gave me some new quotes to use in all the places where I use quotes, so it’s all good.


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