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If you were lucky enough to have had a Physics 101 professor with a
droll sense of humor, you may have had Newton’s First Law presented
something like this: A billiard ball at rest on a billiard table
will remain at rest — unless it doesn’t. And a billiard ball rolling
on a billiard table, will continue rolling — unless it doesn’t
.

Now, as Newton understood — having proclaimed his Law of
Gravitational Attraction — one reason a billiard ball at rest on a
table might not stay at rest is that someone might put another billiard
ball on the table and the two billiard balls would then attract each
other. In fact, according to Newton, the closer they got to each other,
the stronger the attraction.

An important metaphysical distinction between Newton’s First Law and
his Law of Gravitational Attraction is that Newton’s First says nothing
about “causality,” itself, whereas his gravitational law is all about
causality. But Newton’s gravitational attraction is a ‘spooky’
action-at-distance sort of causality.

Now Albert Einstein was first and last a causality guy, himself. The
Special and General Theories of Relativity derive from his almost
religious belief in causality. The fundamental postulate of both
relativity theories is that if a) any two observers are in a position
anywhere in the Universe to observe two events “happen” then, b) they
can never disagree as to which happened first. If they could disagree
– if one observer saw Jill catch the ball first and then saw Jack throw
the ball, later — then causality can not be absolute. For Einstein,
causality has to be absolute. Hardly any 20th century physicist would
argue with Einstein about that.

But where 19th century Einstein — for Relativity is basically 19th
century physics — parted company with 17th century Newton and with 20th
century Bohr-Heisenberg is that he absolutely refused to accept the
“spooky” action-at-a-distance causality which is an integral part of
both Newtonian and Quantum Mechanics. For Einstein, a billiard ball
at rest on a billiard table will remain at rest — unless somebody
whacks it with something
. Literally. For Einstein, cause-effect
has to be local. If A causes B, then if you put a small space-time box
around B, you will also enclose A. If the 8-ball on a pool table
suddenly starts to move, then if you put a small space-time box around
the 8-ball you will also enclose either the tip of the pool cue or the
cue ball.

Furthermore, for Einstein, if you whack our mythical 8-ball at rest
with either the pool cue or the cue ball, it will always, always, start
moving, immediately. Now that is sometimes not the case in 20th century
Quantum Mechanics. Sometimes our mythical 8-ball has a choice. It may
or may not start moving and, even if it does start moving, it may not do
so for quite some time. And, rather than move, it may decide to change
into one or more of the striped balls. Quantum Mechanics is a
bit weird.

But, now, it really gets weird. Albert Einstein had been one of the
founding fathers of Quantum Mechanics. That’s right, Einstein’s 1905
paper explaining the Photoelectric Effect — for which he was awarded
the Nobel Prize — “quantized” the photon. Max Plank had taken the
first step in that quantatization, noting that all electromagnetic
radiation appeared to be emitted as discrete “quanta.” Then Einstein
came along and showed that indeed all electromagnetic radiation was not
only quantized when emitted, but quantized when absorbed. You see, in
the photoelectric effect, when light shines on certain types of
“billiard” tables, suddenly some of the billiard balls start to move.
Believing as he did in local absolute causality, Einstein supposed that
light must be “emitted” as little bullets and that each little bullet
must travel across the room and whack a billiard ball.

By the time Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1927, QM had
essentially been fully developed by the likes of Bohr, Schroedinger and
Heisenberg — and, it had become obvious to every one except Einstein
that the emission and absorption of light “quanta” was an even spookier
action-at-a-distance phenomena than Newton’s gravity ever had been. A
better QM analogy than Einstein’s bullets being fired at a target would
be a wireless interbank transfer of funds — no money actually changes
hands, it is all a debit-credit action-at-a-distance bookkeeping
transaction. To his dying day, Einstein never accepted the QM he had
done so much to father.

Why does any of this matter? Well, Time Magazine chose Einstein as
it’s Man of the Century and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity is widely
touted — by non-physicists — as having completely transformed the way
we all think about ourselves and the universe. Nonsense. Relativity
has had very little practical effect upon the way we either think or go
about our everyday lives. Now, Einstein’s contributions to the
development of Quantum Mechanics — that’s a different story.

QM has completely transformed the way many of us think about
ourselves and the universe and has profoundly affected all our everyday
lives. The 20th century was not the dawn of the Nuclear Age at all, it
was the dawn of the Quantum-Electronic Age. The Nobel committee need
never regret awarding Einstein the Prize for his quantatization of the
photon even if he was wrong about all those little bullets whizzing
about.

As for Relativity? Well if some guy is trying to explain it to you
at a cocktail party, and he tells you that Einstein showed that one
observer can see Jill catch the ball before Jack throws it, excuse
yourself and go powder your nose.

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