culture

Einstein blinked

It’s the mid-1920s, and a patent clerk from Bern, Switzerland has just rocked the entire physics world with a proof sent to the German Academy of Sciences claiming that our notion of time is relative to the person observing it, and changes if you’re going really, really fast. Not satisfied with this absolutely insane discovery, this very same amateur physicist has the audacity to prove that if you’re in the presence of something huge, your notion of time will change as well. And then just for kicks he proves that light bends around super-huge objects like the time-warping ones.

In short, 1920s Albert Einstein was basically the physics-addicted love child of Elon Musk and Steve Jobs and Drake, with Richard Branson’s hair. He’s crazy talented and he is on every paper imaginable, because it’s the 1920s and no one has anything but dubious investments and bootleg liquor and science in their minds. It’s a brave new world out there.

Einstein’s cooking on the next big thing at this point. He’s proven what happens to Newton’s laws of physics when you’re in the presence of extraordinarily massive objects, but he’s only worked out the details by studying the effects of a single large object at a time. He’s decided it’s time to develop the equations to extrapolate all of this on a universal scale. He’s humming along, approving patents and mathematical equations and just being a general and special relative physical badass, when suddenly he hits an equation that he wasn’t expecting. He realizes that if all of his math checks out, then it implies that the universe must be either expanding or shrinking, but it cannot be a constant size. And he stares, and he ponders, and he thinks some more.

And Einstein blinks.

The idea of a non-constant universe overloads his mind and offends his conception of the world around him. He can’t handle it. He checks the math again and again and realizes that it always checks out, so he changes the equations. He adds the notion of a “cosmological constant,” which is supposed to represent the constant size of the universe or something. It’s total nonsense, naturally, and it takes twelve years for Edwin Hubble to finally have sensitive enough instruments to test the theory that the universe might be expanding after all. Hubble’s discoveries humble Einstein, and he deems the lost years to be the biggest blunder of his life.

Einstein recovers and goes on to make still more contributions to science, and few remember that he once had a totally wrong notion of a constant size to the universe. We remember his ideas on light, and gravity, and time, and still credit him with opening the door to the idea that the universe is expanding. Not with being wrong for twelve straight years.