Most of you probably saw the Hollywood epic, “The Final Countdown.” It’s been on late night TV. The USS Nimitz gets time-warped. When Skipper Kirk Douglas asks the duty operations research hotshot how the hell such a thing could have happened, hotshot replies that it is possible because “Einstein showed that everything is relative.”
Apparently Hollywood screenwriters want to you to believe that everything is relative, that there are no absolutes, no objective reality, that everyone’s view of the world and the devil is equally valid. But if that’s want they want you to believe, Albert Einstein is the last guy they ought to cite. It was precisely because Einstein was so convinced that there is an objective reality – that there are absolutes — that he developed his Special Theory of Relativity in 1905. (The Special Theory applied only to motion-related distortions. The General Theory published 10 years later also applied to mass-related distortions.)
You have probably looked at yourself in those fun-house mirrors. You know what you ought to look like, and you realize after a while that the mirror has somehow distorted your two-dimensional image. Einstein realized that if a guy and a girl approached each other at considerable speed in transparent spaceships, then a) the girl’s 4D perception of what is happening in the guy’s spaceship would be distorted, and b) the guy’s 3D perception of what is happening in the girl’s spaceship would be similarly distorted. And what was even worse, the faster they approached each other the greater the distortion of their 4D perceptions would be.
Well, that’s no good. How could there be an objective reality, independent of observation, if wildly different perceptions of that reality could be caused by simple relative motion of the observers?
Einstein realized that the distortions were the result of the constancy of the speed of light! That’s right! In order for perceptions – which arrive at the speed of light — of what was happening in the approaching spaceship to not be distorted, the speed of the spaceship would have to be added onto the speed of light.
The speed of light is, however, a very strange speed. It can neither be added to nor subtracted from. No matter how fast the spaceship is approaching you (whoever you are), you always receive your perception of what is going on in that spaceship, as well as your perception of what is going on in your own spaceship, at the same speed – at a rate of 300 million meters per second, where those are your meters and your seconds in your spaceship. Always! That is the origin of the oft-heard phrase that “nothing can travel faster than the speed of light.” Now that may, or may not, be true. But what is true is that you will always measure the speed of light to be 300 million meters per second, wherever you are.
So, realizing that, Einstein could work out a set of transformation equations — non-math majors can think of Einstein’s equations as if they were a pair of Special Relativity goggles – to un-distort perceptions. Imagine that the goggles have a dial on them and you set that dial according to the relative motion of the two spaceships. That is the only adjustment you have to make to the goggles (and the only input needed to calibrate Einstein’s transformation equations).
When the guy puts on the 4D goggles and looks at her spaceship, he now sees the happenings inside her spaceship undistorted. And when she puts on identical goggles with identical speed setting and looks at his spaceship, she then sees the happenings inside his spaceship undistorted.
You are probably wondering why Einstein took the trouble to gin up these marvelous, yet simple, transformation equations. It was not because guys and girls were zooming about the universe in transparent spaceships and were freaking out at what they saw in passing spacecrafts. Nor was it so we could better understand why some guy sitting right beside us at the bar see snakes when we don’t. He did it because Einstein believed that things really and truly do happen — irrespective of whether or not anyone, moving or still, drunk or sober, sees it happen.
For solving a problem before anyone else even knew we had one, media hype has it that Einstein had fundamentally transformed the way we all view reality. But did he? Before 1905 most people believed that there was such a thing as objective reality. Now it’s the next century and many people, perhaps most people, still believe that there is an objective reality that is independent of observation. So Einstein didn’t transform our views about that.
True, Einstein was not “judgmental.” Far from trying to judge who was right and who was wrong, he showed that – as a consequence of the constancy of the speed of light — each of us can see, when looking at objective reality, different things, but the different things that we see can be shown to be what we ought to have seen, given our relative positions, and therefore, we are all right. That is a strong argument for the existence of objective reality.
So if Hollywood screenwriters want to transport about 10 thousand sailors back to a time when their fathers had not yet met their mothers, or if they want to be non-judgmental about the guy at the bar who sees snakes when no one else does, then they will have to cite someone other than Albert Einstein.