Change the Facts

There is beauty in truth, and truth in beauty. Where does this link between truth and beauty come from? Of course, beauty is subjective, and truth is objective — or so we are told. It may be that we have evolved in accordance with the beautiful Darwinian principles to see perfection in absolute truth.

The beauty and perfection I’m thinking about are of a different kind — those of ideas and concepts. At times, you may get an idea so perfect and beautiful that you know it has to be true. This conviction of truth arising from beauty may be what made Einstein declare:

But this conviction about the veracity of a theory based on its perfection is hardly enough. Einstein’s genius really is in his philosophical tenacity, his willingness to push the idea beyond what is considered logical.

Let’s take an example. Let’s say you are in a cruising airplane. If you close the windows and somehow block out the engine noise, it will be impossible for you to tell whether you are moving or not. This inability, when translated to physics jargon, becomes a principle stating, “Physical laws are independent of the state of motion of the experimental system.”

The physical laws Einstein chose to look at were Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetism, which had the speed of light appearing in them. For them to be independent of (or covariant with, to be more precise) motion, Einstein postulated that the speed of light had to be a constant regardless of whether you were going toward it or away from it.

Now, I don’t know if you find that postulate particularly beautiful. But Einstein did, and decided to push it through all its illogical consequences. For it to be true, space has to contract and time had to dilate, and nothing could go faster than light. Einstein said, well, so be it. That is the philosophical conviction and tenacity that I wanted to talk about — the kind that gave us Special Relativity about a one hundred years ago.

Want to get to General Relativity from here? Simple, just find another beautiful truth. Here is one… If you have gone to Magic Mountain, you would know that you are weightless during a free fall (best tried on an empty stomach). Free fall is acceleration at 9.8 m/s/s (or 32 ft/s/s), and it nullifies gravity. So gravity is the same as acceleration — voila, another beautiful principle.

World line of airplanesIn order to make use of this principle, Einstein perhaps thought of it in pictures. What does acceleration mean? It is how fast the speed of something is changing. And what is speed? Think of something moving in a straight line — our cruising airplane, for instance, and call the line of flight the X-axis. We can visualize its speed by thinking of a time T-axis at right angles with the X-axis so that at time = 0, the airplane is at x = 0. At time t, it is at a point x = v.t, if it is moving with a speed v. So a line in the X-T plane (called the world line) represents the motion of the airplane. A faster airplane would have a shallower world line. An accelerating airplane, therefore, will have a curved world line, running from the slow world line to the fast one.

So acceleration is curvature in space-time. And so is gravity, being nothing but acceleration. (I can see my physicist friends cringe a bit, but it is essentially true — just that you straighten the world-line calling it a geodesic and attribute the curvature to space-time instead.)

The exact nature of the curvature and how to compute it, though beautiful in their own right, are mere details, as Einstein himself would have put it. After all, he wanted to know God’s thoughts, not the details.


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