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Being reconfigured


Aunt Rita's friend Nancy urged Rita to read The Fabric of the Cosmos (2004) by physicist Brian Greene, and Rita urged me. The author, who received his doctorate from Oxford, believes that "By deepening our understanding of the true nature of physical reality, we profoundly reconfigure our sense of ourselves and our experience of the universe". Greene knows that reconfiguration has occurred in the past - most famously when people realized that the Earth was not the centre of the universe - and he is optimistic about our ability to understand scientific theory and to experience the universe differently. I have the quirky view that some reconfiguration at work today has occurred because people misunderstand a theory.

Failing to comprehend a scientific theory is fairly easy - I am usually tied up by string theory. Greene does not have this problem. He can explain complex ideas clearly. Before I mention what I think is the misunderstood theory and its contribution to unhappy human relations, here is Greene on the theories and advances that made it possible -

Many sung and unsung heroes contributed to the rapid and impressive progress that was made, but Newton stole the show. With a handful of mathematical equations, he synthesized everything known about motion on earth and in the heavens, and in so doing composed the score for what has come to be known as classical physics.

In the decades following Newton's work, his equations were developed into an elaborate mathematical structure that significantly extended both their reach and their practical utility. Classical physics gradually became a sophisticated and mature scientific discipline. But shining clearly through all these advances was the beacon of Newton's original insights. Even today, more than three hundred years later, you can see Newton's equations scrawled on introductory-physics chalkboards worldwide, printed on NASA flight plans computing spacecraft trajectories, and embedded within the complex calculations of forefront research. . .


Light was the primary actor in the relativity drama written by Einstein in the early years of the twentieth century. And it was the work of James Clerk Maxwell that set the stage for Einstein's dramatic insights. In the mid-1800s, Maxwell discovered four powerful equations that, for the first time, set out a rigorous theoretical framework for understanding electricity, magnetism, and their intimate relationship. Maxwell developed these equations by carefully studying the work of the English physicist Michael Faraday, who in the early 1800s had carried out tens of thousands of experiments that exposed hitherto unknown features of electricity and magnetism. Faraday's key breakthrough was the concept of the field. Later expanded on by Maxwell and many others, this concept has had an enormous influence.

. . .Today, we are constantly immersed in a sea of electromagnetic fields. Your cellular telephone and car radio work over enormous expanses because the electromagnetic fields broadcast by telephone companies and radio stations suffuse impressively wide regions of space. The same goes for wireless Internet connections; computers can pluck the entire World Wide Web from electromagnetic fields that are vibrating all around us - in fact, right through us. . .

Through the language of fields, Maxwell had shown that electricity and magnetism, although initially viewed as distinct, are really just different aspects of a single physical entity.

But just at the moment when the great principles seemed to be firmly established, British physicist Lord Kelvin saw "two clouds . . .hovering on the horizon" . The first cloud was understanding the properties of light's motion, and led to the theory of relativity; the second cloud was the radiation of heated objects, and led to the quantum revolution.

The theory of relativity may have contributed to another revolution as well - that is, the misunderstood theory may have affected people's understanding of themselves and others. I'm sure I'm not the first to suggest this. The theory of relativity is perhaps the most famous scientific theory in the world, and its mere name, which Einstein never liked, encouraged some people to believe that everything is relative, that there is no absolute truth, and that politics, ethics, and personal relationships are whatever they wanted to make them. They were looking for a license to do what they liked. What better authority than a scientific theory?

This is ironic because, as Greene explains, "Its name notwithstanding, Einstein's theory does not proclaim that everything is relative. Special relativity does claim that some things are relative: velocities are relative; distances across space are relative; durations of elapsed time are relative. But the theory actually introduces a grand, new, sweepingly absolute concept: absolute space-time". Absolute spacetime is as absolute for Einstein as absolute space and time were for Newton, which is why Einstein preferred the name invariance theory. At its core, the theory "involves something that everyone agrees on, something that is not relative". This truth remains in the theory of general relativity, which "provides the choreography for an entwined cosmic dance of space, time, matter, and energy".

Greene explains scientific ideas beautifully. Meanwhile Newton, Faraday, and Maxwell have already reconfigured me. This is not because I understand their theories, but because my life is profoundly affected by the inventions they made possible.

Their enquiries were inspired by a belief they shared - that God had created the universe and given them the reason to explore it. They would not be surprised that understanding the cosmos remains an unfinished task today - the God who created the universe was great enough to create an infinite variety of mysteries and an infinite number of clouds.