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Why is relativity so hard to learn?[10X]
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I'm an engineering microbe (EM), living on a spinning ball, which is part of a bearing deep inside the cosmic machine. We call this ball Earth. To explore my machine, I would love to get off this ball in order to get a better view. I found that pretty difficult, maybe even impossible, so the only thing that seems feasible is to roam around on the surface of the ball.

Scientist microbes (SMs) tell me that I would need a pretty high speed to get off this ball, never mind getting to other parts of the ball bearing or the machine. I told them not to worry, we EMs can design rockets and if we can get it to burn for long time, we will easily reach the speed of light. Look here, I told my SM friend, back of the envelope calculations say that if I build a simple one "g" rocket engine that burns for 1 year, it will travel just faster than the speed of light.

Wait a minute, my friend said – you seem to forget Einstein’s special relativity that says things cannot reach the speed of light, never mind exceed it. Well, I countered, we EMs worked very successfully with Newton’s laws for centuries now; this tells me there is no problem reaching the speed of light. Remember there was some doubt whether we could build an airplane that exceeds the speed of sound? The sound barrier existed in air, but we have broken it. Give us space where there is no air and we will also beat the light barrier.

Confident, I went home to my piece of dust on the ball bearing, deciding that I would take a quick peek at Einstein’s theory in the evening. We did a little of that at engineering school, but through non-use I have forgotten most of it. Fortunately we have the internet today, so brushing up should be a breeze, or so I thought. What I found is a bewildering array of sites that gave me anything from very basic introductions, Einstein’s original works, some fairly obvious quack interpretations, to formidable technical papers. Where do one start, what do you read and what do you leave out?

Fortunately the special relativity theory is simple, although it is not intuitive at all – actually, it flies against many of our ingrained intuitions about space and time. How can the observed speed of light always be the same for everyone, no matter how they move relative to each other? How come things seem to contract in the direction of movement? How can time not be time for everyone? Although I did consider these things before and made an uneasy peace with them, I did not sleep well that night.

I woke up with the knowledge that since all the parts of this huge machine are always in relative movement, I better understand Einstein’s special relativity before I try to comprehend the grander scheme of things. So, I started to read and read and doubted some of what I was reading. I then got the urge that many people seem to get when they first encounter relativity theory. It can’t be – there must be a better or simpler interpretation of it all. What’s more, I’m an engineer and improving things is our work.

Thus began a journey that took me to various landscapes, detours and dead ends - too many to recount them all. Eventually I came full circle and found that things are indeed as Einstein described them. I do think that the wide circle of discovery brought insights that I would not have had if I did not take that trip. In this Blog I will try to help other interested people to walk the wider circle, but without wasting too much time in dead-ends.

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Re: Cosmic Engineering (Part 1)

Permanent Linkby Anonymous on November 4th, 2012, 11:49 am

Hi Jorrie

I look forward to seeing what you might come up with here. As the beginning of my 5th decade looms, and I think constantly about where I'm at, where I've been, and where I want to go, I think a lot about my high school and college days. I was hell-bent on getting good grades, getting good work experiences, so I could get into grad school and get a good job. And, yeah, I've been pretty successful in those endeavours. But, when I look back, I think a lot lately about the physics education I got (mid-life crisis maybe?) It was really all about memorizing the right equations, knowing what numbers to plug in, making sure I got at least a A/B+, and then be done with it. BUT, there was never, ever, in any of these classes (this applies to any science class I've ever had really), any discussion, debate, or different interpretations of the concepts that were taught.

What does this have to do with your post you may wonder? I find myself asking a lot of questions about very basic fundamental physics (not in terms of equations, but what the hell it all really means) and it sounds like what you might come up with might stimulate a little thought in this arena!

Good luck to you in your quest.
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