The Worst Year Ever? Processing 2020 Through History and Physics
We all know these are difficult times. The cost and worth of human lives is being quantified by larger numbers, steeper graphs and convoluted statistics. The fonts that display these numbers on television screens have to be made smaller almost every week to accommodate them. While the upper echelons of society pass on the buck of responsibility and try to hide their incompetence under a veil of high pitched slogans and catchy limericks, the most fundamental cries for help seem to fall on deaf ears. Our media outlets seem to beat the drum of self-aggrandisement so loudly, that these cries are sandwiched between long commercial breaks, full page product advertisements and 140 characters of sympathy.
Amongst all this clamour, a stew of questions arises with a rather pungent smell of discomfort. What is Nature’s plan here? What exactly is God testing in these times? The syllabus of which religion should we study so that something unfortunate does not happen to us or our loved ones? One way to answer these questions is to write a philosophical treatise, the conclusion to which (as has been in the past) almost certainly will be: Well, it all depends. Another way to tackle these questions, is to break them down into a form that is of more immediate relevance. What is my plan for today? What exactly can I do to handle the testing times in the near future? To some readers this might seem another philosophical paradigm that deals with determinism and what not, but I assure you that in the context of this article, it isn’t. After all, if a person does not know whether he/she would have the resources for the next meal, things like David Hume’s influential take on determinism have absolutely no relevance. So how do we tackle these questions? Well, one of the more practical methods that would aid our outlook comes from a subject which can best be described by paraphrasing an extremely buff purple individual who was (is?) obsessed with exotic stones: “we can dread it, run from it, but its relevance still arrives”. The subject, is Physics and the insight is offered from Einstein’s theory of gravitation, also known as General Relativity.
The essence of the theory is perhaps best explained in the first chapter of the book Gravitation by Misner, Wheeler and Thorne, widely considered to be the magnum opus on the subject. The description of General Relativity is given by utilising the same object which started this “gravity business” over 400 years ago: the apple. Imagine you observing a quarrel between two members of the ant syndicate, Albert and Lenard who are present at a common point P near the dimple on top of the apple. After a heated argument over some issue, they decide to part ways and go in different directions, stating from the same point P.
To prevent bumping into each other along the way, they individually decide to walk in a perfect straight line. Now in a “local” reference frame, which loosely means as far as our eyes can see, both Albert and Lenard would ensure that the path is indeed a straight line. Every step is carefully taken without any deviations. However, after some time Albert and Lenard bump into each other! How is that possible? The explanation to us as an observer is pretty apparent: since we can see that the apple is not a flat, but curved surface, their paths will cross each other due to the variation in “curvature” of the apple’s surface and it is observable to us that the curvature is steeper near the dimple as compared to the central part of the apple.
Therefore, what was not apparent to Albert or Lenard was that at each point of their path, the curvature of the apple was dictating their direction of travel and although in their local reference frame the path seemed like a perfectly straight line, in our frame i.e in a “global reference frame”, their paths could converge, intersect and then go in completely different directions. This effect of curvature of a surface on the motion of the body is best summarised in Gravitation by possibly the most elegant and scientifically accurate statement describing Einstein’s theory of gravity: “Space tells matter how to move while matter tells space how to curve”. In our case, the surface of the apple “tells” the path of the ants to move according to the degree of curvature whereas the stem of the apple is what caused the extreme curvature near the dimple so it “tells” the space of the apple how to curve. When Albert and Lenard were struggling to understand how they bumped into each other, you explained this elegant notion of the curvature of spacetime to them. While Albert instantly accepted it and pondered why he had not thought of this earlier, Lenard considered it to be absolutely preposterous! After some time, Lenard informs you that he is an ardent believer in the Flat Apple Society and after hearing this, you decide to not waste your energy any further on trying to convince Lenard and decide to focus on more important things in life.
Now that we have mentioned the need to focus on the more important things in our lives, let’s see how we can incorporate the features of General Relativity into our decision making architecture. In the most simple terms, the lesson we can learn is that us humans can, at best, “control” what happens in our “local frame” and that it is practically impossible to know what trajectory our lives would follow in the “global frame”. Even if we make the greatest care in taking decisions that are expected to have a perfectly “linear trajectory” towards the desired goal, we can never know how, when or whether nature decides to curve the path in what direction or which destination.
Thus, in these difficult times when we do not know the fate entangled with tomorrow’s sunrise, it is crucial to focus on the decisions that we take today, right now, at this moment. Despite the best of our efforts, our mental fortitude does not have the capability to accurately predict what is going to happen in the future. Therefore, the focus should always be on the decisions we take that our under our control and forego the obsession over controlling their outcomes. After all, if we survived the year 536 A.D., we’ll survive 2020 and beyond.
Views expressed are solely those of the author.
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