The Passing Parade: Cheap Shots from a Drive By Mind

"...difficile est saturam non scribere. Nam quis iniquae tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus, ut teneat se..." " is hard not to write Satire. For who is so tolerant of the unjust City, so steeled, that he can restrain himself... Juvenal, The Satires (1.30-32)

Thursday, March 10, 2005

SPECIAL RELATIVITY AND SUCH: I don’t remember learning how to read. I did learn, obviously; reading is not a natural act like eating or breathing or lying to your wife about where you were on Saturday night. No, it is a skill acquired somewhere on the long and tortuous path from the delivery room to filing your first income tax return, and I just don’t remember acquiring the skill. My mother says that I could read when I was two years old, but I think that’s a bit of a stretch, a bit of maternal hyperbole, if you will, something my mother is particularly good at. When my brothers and me were kids she’d wake us up for school by yelling that we had to hurry, it was almost nine o’clock, and so it was, if only in the sense that 6:30 AM is closer to nine o’clock than a quarter past ten in the evening is, but then you have to expect that sort of thing, I think; all mothers think their children are little Einsteins just waiting to burst upon the world stage with their brilliant insights, all mothers except, oddly enough, Frau Einstein herself, who thought her little Albert was a little slow on the uptake. It’s odd to think that anyone ever thought that Albert Einstein was not the brightest bulb in life’s chandelier, but it’s true. You never know what some people can do until they go ahead and do whatever it is you thought they couldn’t do and do it better than you thought anyone could ever do it, if you even thought for a second, which is not very likely, all in all, that anyone could do it in the first place.

“It” is, in this case, the theory of special relativity, which Einstein first proposed a century ago. With this theory Einstein, to all extents and purposes, upended the way people thought for centuries about the universe around them, a way that was just a gloss on how Sir Isaac Newton thought about the universe. Newton thought great and profound thoughts about the universe when he wasn’t being hit on the head with apples or inventing calculus in his spare time or having counterfeiters hanged, drawn, and quartered. Like Einstein, Newton had a government job, and in his official capacity of controller of the Mint Sir Isaac made sure that counterfeiters died in as gruesome a manner as humanly possible as a warning to other counterfeiters to get out of the business and to deter others from trying to counterfeit the King’s currency. The public executions also provided free entertainment for the local populace, all of whom could not get cable at the time, and a diversion for the adventure seeking tourist tired of seeing the sights listed in his Fodor’s guidebook.

These mass gatherings to watch previously undeterred malefactors dispatched gorily to their Maker attracted masses of currently undeterred miscreants, in this case, pickpockets, out to make a quick quid or two. The pickpockets’ arrest and conviction, led inexorably to their own subsequent public execution by hanging, this time without the drawing and quartering, an extra reserved for certain annoying criminals like counterfeiters, traitors, and telemarketers only. All executions, however, took place under the direction and none too watchful eye of Jack Ketch, by royal warrant, the official hangman of London, and a man acknowledged by all to have no real aptitude for the job. He did score well on the civil service test; he was trying to get into the National Health Service in a supervisory position, but the only such position available that matched his qualifications was in Liverpool and he did not want to leave London. So he had to wait for his name to come up for any positions in the capital, and until one did he took the hanging gig. He didn’t like the work; he drank heavily before hangings, a circumstance that explains why he botched them on a consistent basis. After a few years on the job he’d botched so many executions that the curious spectators came to look forward to seeing how Jack would mess up the day’s hangings, in much the same way that people stay and watch an incredibly awful movie so they can see if the movie can get any worse than it already is, and booed and hissed vigorously if the hanging went off without a hitch. Some London bookies took wagers on how many hangings in a given day would go wrong. The adventurous spectator could bet how many times Jack would have to pull on a hanged man’s legs in order to break his neck or how many minutes the prisoner would dangle before expiration, or, when all else failed, the number of times Jack would bludgeon the condemned over the head with an iron bar. Captain Thunderbolt, an altogether uncooperative highwayman, set the record in 1719, when he refused to go gently into that good night via the standard rope method and Jack whacked him over the head twenty-seven times to help him shuffle off this mortal coil, if you can say a man dangling in mid-air shuffles anywhere.

Einstein, of course, did not have to hit people over the head in the Swiss patent office; some civil service jobs are less demanding than others; although spending week after week going through patent applications for Bulgarian speaking perpetual motion machines and better fitting snowshoes for St. Bernard rescue dogs and new, improved methods of breeding smaller cuckoos for cuckoo clocks beating the crap out of somebody probably sounded like a good idea, if only as a way to relieve the stress. He didn’t do any such thing, of course; Einstein may have found dealing with wild-eyed inventors crazed by visions of lucre beyond the dreams of avarice inherently less annoying than Newton found dealing with people who made their own lucre. That’s always a possibility, you know; different people have different temperaments, after all.

Nor was special relativity Einstein’s only miracle. Eleven years after he proposed special relativity, he proposed general relativity, which is even more complicated than special relativity, except you can’t make bombs out of the general theory, unless I am confusing the two. Be that as it may, though, in 1921 Albert Einstein received the Nobel Prize for Physics, and he didn’t get it for either special or general relativity. No, he got it for explaining the photoelectric effect. That’s right: the photoelectric effect; he got the biggest scientific prize in the world for explaining why the doors at Wal-Mart swing open without your having to touch them. There’s a profound lesson here for all of us…but I am not entirely certain what that lesson may be.


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