Sunday, June 24, 2018
Publication Date: 12/1/2009
Archive >  December 2009 Issue >  Tech-Op-Ed > 

It's Only Relative
Walter Salm, Editor
Has anyone seen Schrodinger's cat? This wonderful ficticious creature was part of a "thought experiment" devised by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrodinger in 1935 as a possible way to define a troublesome area of quantum mechanics. He described the cat in a box experiment to his friend Albert Einstein, who by then had taken up residence in Princeton, NJ. Einstein never quite came to terms with quantum mechanics, even though he was still scribbling equations on his deathbed in 1955 in an effort to solve the mystery.

Einstein engaged in numerous arguments over quantum physics with long-time associate and close friend Niels Bohr, a Danish theoretical physicist, who fled from Nazi occupation and ultimately became a key player on the Manhattan project which developed the first atomic bombs. Bohr, who idolized Einstein, was also the first to describe more precisely the behavior of certain subatomic particles, particularly electrons, which he said could make a "quantum leap" from one orbit to another, higher-energy orbit. We have him to thank for much of today's knowledge of electronics, and certainly of atomic energy.

Schrodinger and Bohr are secondary stars in a wonderful galaxy titled "Einstein, His Life and Universe", a biography by Walter Isaacson. Learning about the how and why of much of the science that we take so much for granted today has been fascinating, even though reading this book had to be done in bits and pieces (reading in bed, in the bathroom, waiting in the checkout line at CostCo, waiting for long downloads on the computer). Isaacson is an excellent writer, and somehow manages to impart some basic scientific ideas, and some humor, even though the ideas may be incredibly complex — at least at first. But I came away feeling not quite so stupid; after all, even the great Einstein couldn't solve quantum mechanics to his own satisfaction. Yet we take quantum physics so much for granted today, looking to this arcane science as the holy grail for the next generation of electronics hardware, or whenever the day finally comes that Moore's Law reaches its final limitations.

Einstein created marvelous "thought experiments" using homely analogies to explain some of his concepts. In a 1911 paper, he proposed that the force exerted by gravity was sufficient to bend a beam of light, and suggested measuring the apparent shift of a star's image after its light passed through the sun's gravitational field. To measure this, a total eclipse was needed, and a team of German astronomers went to the Crimea (one of the few places where the upcoming eclipse would be total) in 1914 with all their equipment. Unfortunately, World War I broke out right after they arrived, and they were promptly imprisoned by the Russians. It wouldn't have mattered; as it turned out, there was too much cloud cover that day. After the war, two British teams set out for Brazil and Western Africa — the best viewing points for the 1919 eclipse. They were able to verify that Einstein had been 100 percent correct about the bending of light.

In explaining relativity, author Isaacson keeps coming back to the concept of aging more slowly (time dilation) as we travel near the speed of light. While we are nowhere near doing this yet, he tried to use an airplane analogy with a wry twist: ". . .if you spent almost your entire life on an airplane, you would have aged merely 0.00005 seconds or so less than your twin (who remained) on earth. . .an effect that would likely be counteracted by a lifetime spent eating airline food."

The biography draws on much new material, including papers that only became available in 2006, so it is about as up-to-date as possible. It is strongly recommended reading, especially to keep handy during those long computer downloads that plague us all too often. But then, the time you spend that way is only relative.  

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