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Einstein's Universe

Physics: the fundamental science and ultimate source of technological innovation in our society, focused at the heart of inquiry about space and time. What Einstein called “the humble attempt to understand even a tiny portion of the Reason that manifests itself in nature.” With high scores for affricative value (ffffffiiiizzziiiixx!) and nerd quotient, it inspires the deepest of fears in the best of us. And its ranks are filled with the most boring, odd and quirky people you’ll ever meet.

Take, for example, my former intro physics TA. He’s an 80-something-year-old physicist who spent the greater part of his life working for the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Department of Energy on secret projects that he never knew were being used to develop the atomic bomb. When the war ended he packed his bags and headed for the Gothic Wonderland to teach aspiring scientists the basics of the forces of nature.

He speaks like you would imagine a physicist to talk: Bordering on comatose, with a style that toes the line between Stephen Hawking and Walter Mathau. When he’s talking physics, he never, ever misspeaks or obfuscates. I believe he’s incapable of wrong, and I love him for it.

One day he’s delivering a summary of what went on in lecture that day, in his characteristically dry monotone. “You must be certain to ground current when working with high electric potentials. Observe, the following [pregnant pause—he raises his hands in demonstration]: In an infinitely thin wire with marginal resistance (we must assume the infinite to avoid complications of the real world), a battery of just 100 volts can create more than 1,000 kilojoules of excess disorder—what we humans call heat.”

You can always tell when he’s about to go on these mini-digressions: He stops writing equations on the board, turns to fashion his ever-so-light-blue, short-sleeved Walmart polo and adjusts his monstrous horn-rimmed spectacles before continuing.

“If that infinitely thin wire were replaced with, for instance, one of you, this spontaneous generation of heat would result in the very unfortunate phenomenon known as death.”

I got an A in that course, a direct result of the hours spent with my TA in office hours. Whenever he walks by me in the physics building, I always say “Hi,” silently acknowledging his wisdom, hesitant to show my enthusiasm. And, never remembering my name, he walks by, not without purpose, not hastened by his ignorance of me, just replying confidently, “Hullo.”

Fast-forward to my general relativity class this fall. The students in the class affectionately call it G-R. Our professor, a mathematician, argues that Einstein’s theory of relativity was a direct outgrowth from the “uncleanliness” of Newtonian mechanics. “This theory was not beautiful; in Newton’s time we did not know G-R, but we had an idea that this just couldn’t be it.” In order to reconcile the theory with simplicity—in other words, to make it beautiful—Einstein had to remove the artificial constrictions on the quantities themselves.

“Convince yourself of this by proving Theorem 2-A, Exercise 3,” he continues with the lecture.

We must all learn to convince ourselves of things. We have minds that strive to be infinite, that want to know all, but we are constantly vexed by the imperfection and limitations of being human. Whether in physics, literature or political science, students can find the whole of the human experience in every discipline. Yet we spend much of our time trying to justify that what we’re doing at the moment is the right thing to do.

I am a firm believer that if students can be taught the big ideas of what physics strives to do, then they will be hooked to it like a drug. The same holds true for every field of knowledge or achievement, and specialization in any endeavor does not exclude making the great connections. As Brian Greene, the famous string theorist, aptly puts it: “It seemed that if one could gain a deep familiarity with the questions, a real profound understanding of them, then at least that would be the first step towards coming to answers about the purpose of our existence.”


Philip Kurian is a Trinity senior.


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