Today is the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. I’m sure somewhere today I will read, see on TV, or hear on the radio (public radio anyway) about this and also about the importance of science education. They will probably use the acronym STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Math).
In a previous blog post I asked the question whether our current, standardized-test-based education system could produce another Einstein. Looking at it now with a little distance, I think that is the wrong question. The first Einstein was not a product of the education system. Famously, Einstein was not a stellar student. This is a common theme among the kinds of genius such as Einstein.
I think the more importance question is this: Can the current education system produce a generation that can understand and apply Einstein’s Theory of Relativity? And I’m not talking about the next generation of scientists. I’m talking about the next generation of citizens. Does the current generation? Doubtful. Let’s begin with a simple summary of the Theory of General Relativity’s impact on our understanding of the fabric of the universe. We’ll start small.
Imagine a world…or in movie trailer lingo, “In a world…” that the universe is the 2-dimensional surface of a balloon covered with little dots. Each dot representing a galaxy, star, or planetary body. In this model the universe is the surface of the balloon, not above it or inside of it. That is empty space. It doesn’t exist. Or at least it doesn’t exist to us residing in the surface of the balloon. As the balloon expands, and before we veer into a philosophical discussion about who is blowing up the balloon, let’s nip that in the bud—it’s an elephant. Hey, it’s my visualization and I don’t want to talk about the elephant in the room. As the surface of the balloon expands all of the objects move away from each other. What is the center? Well from the perspective of every “Flat Stanley” stationed on one of those dots they are all at the center because everything is moving away from them. Now let’s zoom in on one of those dots. For the sake of the analogy we have to adjust a little and see that one of the dots is actually the earth. Imagine that where the earth sits on the surface of the balloon it causes a depression on the rubber surface. The rubber surface of the balloon represents the fabric of space and time. The mass of the earth bends the fabric of space. The larger the mass, the bigger the depression in the fabric of space and time. Now imagine a small comet (the red line on the illustration) is moving through the solar system. As it passes near the earth it follows the contour of the bent fabric of space which changes its trajectory. If far enough away it would not be affected. If too close or moving too slowly the comet would get “caught” in the gravity well created by the earth and crash into its surface. This understanding allows engineers to build and put into orbit satellites. By knowing their mass (exactly) and then putting them outside the drag of earth’s atmosphere, and then giving them a push at exactly the right speed they will stay in orbit around the earth. Too fast and the head off into space. Too slow and they burn up in the atmosphere.
My experience as an educator is that most people do not actually understand the force of gravity or the structure of the universe at even this most basic of levels. This bothers me. It tells me that we have failed somewhere. It’s important to understand the world in which we live. We don’t all have to understand the math behind it, or be able to apply it to be able to ourselves engineer and launch the satellite, but we should all understand why it is possible. Here is why I think it is important to know this, and also to know what we don’t know.
How many of those that want to be the next leader of our nation understand this very simplistic version of a complex scientific theory? This is the type of question I want to see asked in the next presidential debate. It would be okay if the candidates actually were stumped by the answer, as long as they could then express who they would seek advice from and if they would actually believe that advice. When I think of the GOP front-runners, Trump and Carson, answering this question during a debate the hair stands up on the back of my neck. These two especially seem to be unwittingly embracing a concept from Einstein’s other half of the Theory of Relativity (Special Relativity). A component of this theory is that gravity can affect the path of light and the passage of time and that while the laws of physics are constant, how you perceive them is relative to your own location and motion through space and time.
Donald Trump appears to live in a world where he can invent past news events such as mass celebration by Muslims in New Jersey on 9/11—though this has been absolutely discredited, and still press on with his version of reality. Not to be left behind in the lunacy, Ben Carson suddenly recalls seeing the same thing. Trump also lives in a world where it is acceptable to beat a protester at a campaign event who disagrees with him. It’s one thing to ask security to remove a disruption from a speech and event. It’s quite another to condone the action by saying, “Maybe he should have been roughed up,” he said. “Maybe he should have been roughed up because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing…” (November 23rd, 2015 cnn.com). This kind of attitude should terrify all of us. This is plain and simple fascism, partly defined by someone who should know, Benito Mussolini, as “any type of questioning the government is not to be tolerated. If you do not see things our way, you are wrong. If you do not agree with the government, you cannot be allowed to live and taint the minds of the rest of the good citizens.” Ironically, I got this from a website using the same definition to denounce Barack Obama. To each his or her own Special Relativity I guess.
It is clear that Donald Trump, and an inconceivable number of individuals in my opinion, that think he is qualified to be president and therefore agree with the sentiment that one deserves to be physically oppressed from disagreeing with him. This is apparently how he instructs his private security. He has gone on to say “Would I approve waterboarding? You bet your ass I would—in a heartbeat…And I would approve more than that. Don’t kid yourself, folks. It works, okay? Only a stupid person would say it doesn’t work…And you know what? If it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway, for what they’re doing. It works.” (November 23rd, Washington Post). How much further would it be for Donald Trump as Commander in Chief to use the military to shut down protests of those that disagree with his policies?
I get that recent increased terrorism by ISIS has the world running scared right now. These latest events on top of concern over police violence in this country, concern over economic issues of loss of the middle class…I could go on, maybe have created a tipping point of anger and fear. Clearly these issues are a constant in the back of my mind because I started writing about the anniversary of Einstein’s theory somehow ended up in presidential politics. Roosevelt said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” If we operate from a position of anger and fear in choosing leaders who choose which news accounts, (or even scientific evidence) to believe or ignore—or apparently invent in the case of Trump and Carson—we very well could end up looking back and wondering how and when we as a people agreed to suspend our civil liberties and if it was worth it.