Einstein's Theory Of Relativity: Implications Beyond Science?

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SiS is proud to feature the winners of the "2008 Integrated Graduate Program in the Life Sciences (IGP) Science and Society Class Distinction Award." Written as part of a course on science and society, these papers were chosen by IGP faculty to be published on SiS. This month, we present the following piece by MD-PhD candidate Hans Arora. Next month we'll look at "Origin of Life: The Panspermia Theory," by PhD student Sonali Joshi.

In 1905, Albert Einstein published his special theory of relativity, and his general theory of relativity was made public in 1915. For these accomplishments, he is often heralded as the most influential thinker of the 20th century and possibly in modern history. His name is taught to elementary school children across the country as a potential role model, and his image is easily recognizable to the majority of our population. “Einstein” and “genius” have become virtually interchangeable in our society.

Arguably, it is the superficial simplicity that causes many to accept E = mc2 as Einstein's major contribution to science: five simple characters, simple algebra—how hard could it be? We need only look at the backs of cereal boxes, television commercials, and newspaper advertisements to see the famous equation used to signify education and knowledge. While the audience may not understand what these letters stand for, or the far-reaching implications of the theory of relativity, the equation itself has become a symbol. The use of the phrase signals the lay audience to regard what follows as intelligent, knowledgeable, and accurate.

The meaning of this phrase to the scientific community is understandably much different. As a graduate student, much of my academic life while growing up has been geared towards science. One of the questions I remember asking is, "What does E = mc2 mean?" When I was lucky, I received the answer, "energy equals mass times the speed of light squared," and for a while I was content with that literal response. Yet, while "energy equals mass times the speed of light squared" tells me what E = mc2 stands for, it still does not tell me what it means. As I learn more, I realize that the applications of this deceivingly simple equation are what give it meaning, whether they are in the construction of the atomic bomb or the study of particle physics. But this mass-energy equivalence is only one aspect of relativity—and only special relativity at that—and yet it is the most commonly cited example of Einstein's work.

However, the great majority influence Einstein is credited with is due to the implications of relativity as a concept beyond science. While Einstein’s work did create new branches of study in physics and revolutionize astronomy, the impact on daily life, philosophy, and society are much more important. It is through the aftermath of his two theories on relativity that Einstein has truly risen to fame in a variety of audiences and for many reasons.

At first glance, it seems difficult to acknowledge practical, every day implications of Einstein’s theories of relativity. We rarely find ourselves confronted with the dilemma of considering disparate inertial frames or extremely high velocities approaching the speed of light. However, the applications to nuclear energy production and synchronization of the global positioning system (GPS) satellites around the earth indicate an effect of relativity on our day-to-day activities. Nuclear energy has helped alleviate a portion of our reliance on non-renewable resources for our energy needs. And as those needs increase and our resources are depleted, we will be continually drawn towards the promises nuclear energy has already fulfilled for other parts of the world that have more readily accepted it as a major energy supplier. It is also difficult to imagine the military and combat today without conjuring images of nuclear warheads and nuclear-powered submarines. These technologies rely on relativity through GPS. However, GPS enables not only the Department of Defense, but also the commuter who has just taken a wrong turn and the couple searching for a restaurant.

Another practical aspect of our lives that has been impacted by relativity is almost so basic that it often escapes conscience awareness. Einstein's postulates regarding relativity challenged much of the way traditional science had viewed certain physical aspects of the universe. Put simply, he stated that the laws of physics (and science) are the same for all observers, regardless of their speed, and that the speed of light was constant for all observers, regardless of their speed. For example, if a person traveling 60 miles per hour on a bus throws an object at 30 miles an hour, this object will appear to be moving at 90 miles per hour—both speeds combined—to a person standing still on the ground, but only 30 miles per hour to the person on the bus. However, if the person on the bus shoots a light beam, and a person standing still on the ground also sees it, the speed of the light will be the same for both people on the ground and people on the bus—186,000 miles per second. The extra 60 miles per hour of velocity from the bus means nothing.

Initial intuition tells us this does not make sense—speed is determined by distance over time. So, if the speed of light doesn’t change, that means distance and time must change to always reach the correct number. Therefore, one of relativity's most extraordinary consequences is realized: time itself is relative! Things that we thought were fixed, constant, and known were not really any of those. Time (and length) were dependent on your viewpoint, and the circumstances (i.e. inertial reference frame) in which you viewed these “constants” affected the properties which you measured. Time is often agreed upon as the only constant thing in our universe. Einstein dared to say that we must now re-interpret how we view the world around us. Such a radical concept turned science on its head, and it became widely acknowledged that this discovery had somehow affected the lives of everyone on the planet- rather, the lives of everyone had always been affected by properties that had only just been discovered and acknowledged.

Einstein’s theories of relativity have not only affected our daily lives in such basic ways as how we heat our homes, reach our destinations, and measure our days. His theories of relativity were used by philosophers, politicians, and activists to turn moral philosophy upside-down. Relativity fueled postmodernism and philosophic relativism. Prior to relativity, philosophers such as Aristotle, Kant, and Mill argued that there was an absolute truth and an absolute way of approaching various aspects of life. For example, a businessman who comes across a child drowning in a pond is obligated to save the child’s life. However, now armed with relativity, facts are no longer absolute, but instead dependent upon your viewpoint, your own "philosophical" inertial reference frame. Right and wrong now vary from person-to-person, an idea which was so readily accepted because that now meant that each one of our viewpoints could be considered valid, as there was no absolute truth to be had. Of course, it should be noted that this philosophical argument is not always accepted by the laws and social norms we produce.

Another societal implication of Einstein’s theories is due to his humble background. The child of immigrants, Jewish, and poor, Einstein was the quintessential American. He had earned his success and thus, we could too. Power and fame were not just for the rich and established. Education became the ticket to success for many less fortunate in the United States. He exemplified the importance of diversity and openness at a time when the world was not ready to see that which was different. Due to his fame and prominence after the publication of his theories of relativity, Einstein became an everyday hero. Amazingly, he was able to use his influence to comment on social and national policies such as nuclear warfare, education, and human rights.

Through all of these realms of influence, it becomes obvious that Einstein is not simply a brilliant physicist, but a man who changed his world in ways that he could not have even foreseen. It is for these reasons that he has often been called the most influential person of modern history, and that the greatest impact of his work on relativity was not on our science, but on our society.

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