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How Einstein’s general theory of relativity killed off common-sense physics

David Lyth, Lancaster University

Gravity ties our bodies to planet Earth but it does not define the limits of the soaring human mind. In November 1915 – exactly one century ago – this was proven to be true when Albert Einstein, in a series of lectures at the Prussian Academy of Sciences, presented a theory that would revolutionise how we view gravity – and physics itself.

For two centuries, Newton’s remarkably simple and elegant theory of universal gravitation had seemed to explain the matter well. But, as is increasingly true for physics, simple just doesn’t cut it anymore.

Einstein’s starting point for general relativity was his theory of special relativity, published in 1905. This explained how to formulate the laws of physics in the absence of gravity. At the centre of both theories is a description of space and time that is different from the one that common sense would suggest.

The theories explain how to interpret motion between different places that are moving at constant speeds relative to each other – rather than relative to some sort of absolute ether (as Newton had assumed). While the laws of physics are universal, it says, different viewers will see the timing of events differently depending on how fast they are travelling. An event that would seem to take 1000 years when viewed from Earth may seem to take just a second for someone in a spacecraft travelling at great speed.

At the centre of Einstein’s theories is the fact that the speed of light is independent of the motion of the observer who is measuring the speed. This is strange, because common sense suggests that if you sit in your car alongside a railroad track, a train passing by will seem to be moving much faster than if you followed it in the same direction. However, if you instead sit and watch a light beam go by, it would move equally fast regardless of whether you were following it or not – a clear indication that something is wrong with common sense.

Einstein’s special and general relativity.

The implication of this theory is that we need to give up the idea that there is a universal time, and accept that the time registered by a clock depends on its trajectory as it moves through the universe. This also means that time passes more slowly when you’re going fast, meaning a twin going to space will age more slowly than their sibling back on Earth. This “twin paradox” may seem like a mathematical quirk but it was actually experimentally verified in 1971 in an experiment taking atomic clocks on commercial flights.

Special relativity works only for inertial frames moving relative to one another if they are moving at constant speed – it cannot describe what happens if they are accelerating. Einstein wondered how to expand it to include such acceleration and allow for gravity, which causes acceleration and is, after all, everywhere.

He realised that the effect of gravity disappears if one doesn’t try to overcome it. He imagined people in an elevator whose cable had broken in free fall and worked out that since the objects would either float motionless or at constant speed, the people wouldn’t feel gravity. But nowadays we know this is true as we have seen it ourselves in people at the international space station. In both cases there are no forces counteracting the effect of gravity and the people experience no gravity.

Curved space-time.

Einstein also realised that the effect of gravity is the same as the effect of acceleration; driving off at high speed pushes us backward, just as if gravity were pulling us. These two clues led Einstein to general relativity. Whereas Newton had seen gravity as a force propagated between bodies, Einstein described is as pseudo force experienced because the entire interwoven fabric of space and time bends around a massive object.

Einstein himself said his path was far from easy. He wrote that “in all my life I have not laboured nearly so hard, and I have become imbued with great respect for mathematics, the subtler part of which I had in my simple-mindedness regarded as pure luxury until now.”

The evidence

As soon as Einstein discovered general relativity, he realised that it explains the failure of Newton’s theory to account for the orbit of Mercury. The orbit is not quite circular which means that there is a point at which it is closest to the sun. Newton’s theory predicts that this point is fixed, but observation shows that it slowly rotates around the sun and Einstein found that general relativity correctly describes the rotation.

Einstein’s general relativity

“I was beside myself with joyous excitement,” he wrote a few months later. Since then, general relativity has passed many observational tests with flying colours.

You are using general relativity whenever you invoke the GPS system to find out your position on the Earth’s surface. That system emits radio signals from 24 satellites and the GPS receiver in your phone or car analyses three or more of these signals to figure out your position using general relativity. If you had used Newton’s theory, the GPS system would have given the wrong position.

But while general relativity works well to describe the physical world on large scales, quantum mechanics has emerged as the most successful theory for tiny particles such as those making up an atom. Just like the theories of relativity, quantum mechanics is counter intuitive. Whether it is possible to unite the two remains to be seen but it is unlikely to reintroduce common sense into physics.

The Conversation

David Lyth, Professor Emeritus of Physics, Lancaster University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Is your religion ready to meet ET?

David A Weintraub, Vanderbilt University

How will humankind react after astronomers hand over rock-solid scientific evidence for the existence of life beyond the Earth? No more speculating. No more wondering. The moment scientists announce this discovery, everything will change. Not least of all, our philosophies and religions will need to incorporate the new information.

Searching for signs of life

Astronomers have now identified thousands of planets in orbit around other stars. At the current rate of discovery, millions more will be found this century.

Having already found the physical planets, astronomers are now searching for our biological neighbors. Over the next fifty years, they will begin the tantalizing, detailed study of millions of planets, looking for evidence of the presence of life on or below the surfaces or in the atmospheres of those planets.

And it’s very likely that astronomers will find it. Despite the fact that more than one-third of Americans surveyed believe that aliens have already visited Earth, the first evidence of life beyond our planet probably won’t be radio signals, little green men or flying saucers. Instead, a 21st century Galileo, using an enormous, 50-meter-diameter telescope, will collect light from the atmospheres of distant planets, looking for the signatures of biologically significant molecules.

Astronomers filter that light from far away through spectrometers – high-tech prisms that tease the light apart into its many distinct wavelengths. They’re looking for the telltale fingerprints of molecules that would not exist in abundance in these atmospheres in the absence of living things. The spectroscopic data will tell whether a planet’s environment has been altered in ways that point to biological processes at work.

What is our place in the universe?
Woman image via

If we aren’t alone, who are we?

With the discovery in a distant planet’s light spectrum of a chemical that could only be produced by living creatures, humankind will have the opportunity to read a new page in the book of knowledge. We will no longer be speculating about whether other beings exist in the universe. We will know that we not alone.

An affirmative answer to the question “Does life exist anywhere else in the universe beyond Earth?” would raise immediate and profoundly important cosmotheological questions about our place in the universe. If extraterrestrial others exist, then my religion and my religious beliefs and practices might not be universal. If my religion is not universally applicable to all extraterrestrial others, perhaps my religion need not be offered to, let alone forced on, all terrestrial others. Ultimately, we might learn some important lessons applicable here at home just from considering the possibility of life beyond our planet.

In my book, I investigated the sacred writings of the world’s most widely practiced religions, asking what each religion has to say about the uniqueness or non-uniqueness of life on Earth, and how, or if, a particular religion would work on other planets in distant parts of the universe.

Extrasolar sinners?

Let’s examine a seemingly simple yet exceedingly complex theological question: could extraterrestrials be Christians? If Jesus died in order to redeem humanity from the state of sin into which humans are born, does the death and resurrection of Jesus, on Earth, also redeem other sentient beings from a similar state of sin? If so, why are the extraterrestrials sinful? Is sin built into the very fabric of the space and time of the universe? Or can life exist in parts of the universe without being in a state of sin and therefore without the need of redemption and thus without the need for Christianity? Many different solutions to these puzzles involving Christian theology have been put forward. None of them yet satisfy all Christians.

Mormon worlds

Mormon scripture clearly teaches that other inhabited worlds exist and that “the inhabitants thereof are begotten sons and daughters unto God” (Doctrines and Covenants 76:24). The Earth, however, is a favored world in Mormonism, because Jesus, as understood by Mormons, lived and was resurrected only on Earth. In addition, Mormon so-called intelligences can only achieve their own spiritual goals during their lives on Earth, not during lifetimes on other worlds. Thus, for Mormons, the Earth might not be the physical center of the universe but it is the most favored place in the universe. Such a view implies that all other worlds are, somehow, lesser worlds than Earth.

Bahá’í without bias

Members of the Bahá’í Faith have a view of the universe that has no bias for or against the Earth as a special place or for against humans as a special sentient species. The principles of the Bahá’í Faith – unifying society, abandoning prejudice, equalizing opportunities for all people, eliminating poverty – are about humans on Earth. The Bahá’í faithful would expect any creatures anywhere in the universe to worship the same God as do humans, but to do so according to their own, world-specific ways.

Light years from Mecca

The pillars of the faith for Muslims require the faithful to pray five times every day while facing Mecca. Because determining the direction of Mecca correctly could be extremely difficult on a quickly spinning planet millions of light years from Earth, practicing the same faith on another world might not make any sense. Yet the words of the Qu’ran tell us that “Whatever beings there are in the heavens and the earth do prostrate themselves to Allah” (13:15). Can terrestrial Muslims accept that the prophetically revealed religion of Muhammad is intended only for humans on earth and that other worlds would have their own prophets?

Astronomers as paradigm-shatterers

Philosophers and scientists have forced worldviews to adapt in the past.

At certain moments throughout history, astronomers’ discoveries have exerted an outsized influence on human culture. Ancient Greek astronomers unflattened the Earth – though many then chose to forget this knowledge. Renaissance scholars Copernicus and Galileo put the Earth in motion around the Sun and moved humans away from the center of the universe. In the 20th century, Edwin Hubble eliminated the very idea that the universe has any center at all. He demonstrated that what the universe has is a beginning in time and that, bizarrely, the universe, the very fabric of three-dimensional space, is expanding.

Clearly, when astronomers offer the world bold new ideas, they don’t mess around. Another such paradigm-shattering new idea may be in the light arriving at our telescopes now.

No matter which (a)theistic background informs your theology, you may have to wrestle with the data astronomers will be bringing to houses of worship in the very near future. You will need to ask: Is my God the God of the entire universe? Is my religion a terrestrial or a universal religion? As people work to reconcile the discovery of extrasolar life with their theological and philosophical worldviews, adapting to the news of life beyond Earth will be discomfiting and perhaps even disruptive.

The Conversation

David A Weintraub, Professor of Astronomy, Vanderbilt University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Spider Medicine (Arachnid Arcanum)

Originally posted on Shamagaia:

 Spider_web_Luc_ViatourImage source: Wikimedia Commons

Awkward Beginnings

Meeting a new animal spirit guide is always a deeply cathartic experience, and my recent introduction to a spider spirit guide was no exception. Relationships with animal spirits are in some regards like the ones we have with people. Trust takes time to develop in both parties. There may be reluctance at first, and this was the case with my spider spirit guide and I.

I met her peripherally at first, within my psychic safe space, which consists of a lush Australian bush grove with a stream fed by a waterfall. I journey here and ground myself upon a rock in the middle of the stream to meditate and clear my mind as I await interactions with various inter-dimensional beings.

However, on this particular occasion, I felt compelled to retreat back into the dark rocky recess behind the waterfall, which serves as my…

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“A Brief History of Time” by Stephen Hawking

Originally posted on Stuff Jeff Reads:


This book has been on my list for a while and I finally got around to reading it. I had high expectations for a couple reasons. First off, I am fascinated by theoretical physics. Wormholes, black holes, quantum mechanics, string theory, all that stuff I find intriguing. But more importantly, as a technical writer, I am very interested in how other writers of scientific and technical information are able to present complex ideas in a manner that is digestible for the lay person. From this perspective, Hawking excels in communicating deep and complicated ideas in a clear and concise manner that we commoners can grasp.

There is a lot of deep information and I could not do the book justice by trying to summarize it. So instead, I will cite a few quotes that sparked some thoughts and questions for me. The first one concerns event horizons associated with black…

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Knowledge of Science Increases Faith in God

The Whirlpool Galaxy (Spiral Galaxy M51, NGC 5...

The Whirlpool Galaxy (Spiral Galaxy M51, NGC 5194) is a classic spiral galaxy located in the Canes Venatici constellation. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Misam Hasan Naqvi

Everyday, we see so many buildings around us. These buildings are meant for various purposes like residential apartments, offices, schools, colleges, hospitals and shopping malls etc. Whenever we come across a building that is planned out in such a manner that it best serves the purpose for which it is built and also offers maximum facilities and convenience to the people using it, we can easily understand that there was an efficient architect behind it.

No matter how efficiently a building has been designed, there will still be room for improvement. But when we look at the universe, we simply find it to be flawless. No scientist could ever point out that it would have been better had the distance between any two planets been greater.

Our very own earth has everything that is essential for the existence of life. Air, water, soil, gravity, sunlight, plants, animals and so many other bounties which we could not have even imagined, have been made available to us. Now did all this happen on its own or was there some intelligent designer behind all this? Nobel laureate Physicist, Charles Town states, ‘No one can deny that the universe is the outcome of intelligent placing. It is unusual. We, too, are unusual. To make it possible for life to exist, special physical laws are required. So I would say that this is a very special universe. It has been intelligently planned. How can anyone confute that? So, there is indeed a spiritual world; a Creator.’ (Ref: The Speaking Tree column of Times of India).

Many people like Stephen Hawking have argued that it is all due to the consequence of the laws of physics. Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist was quick to agree by stating, ‘Darwinism kicked God out of biology but physics remained more uncertain. Hawking is now administering the coup de grace.’

English: Planets and dwarf planets of the sola...

Planets and dwarf planets of the solar system, sizes to scale. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I agree that a scientific approach may be adopted while trying to understand a natural phenomenon. But science is merely the study of these phenomena and not their creator. Therefore, the study of the creator is beyond the scope of science. But how the study of science will affect the faith of a person depends upon his/her initial understanding of God. If a person thinks that God is sitting somewhere in a physical form, holding a sprinkler to make it rain, then it is quite natural that on learning the true scientific cause behind rains, the person will lose faith in God. But if a person understands that God is the creator of all phenomena, and he has designed all the systems, then that person\’s faith can only become stronger with the increasing knowledge of science. So Darwinism or any other theory cannot pose any threat to faith.

Every time I watch the discovery channel or animal planet, or come to know about the scientific cause of any event through books or magazines, I find that the level of my faith has only increased.

Therefore, every person who believes in God cannot be labeled as irrational or vice-versa. In fact, science is the true means to understand the majesty of the Almighty.

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About the Author

Misam Hasan Naqvi is a student of Islamic studies. He is also a qualified journalist.

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Listening to this today, I finally put my finger on what it sounds like to me. An ethereal time machine… spinning thru the centuries, hovering over different eras. Funny thing about this time machine is that it’s sorta got a personality. So that’s why I tagged it “mad computer” and “man machine” at SoundCloud.

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A good, all-round book on the paranormal, parapsychology etc.

English: Hand-colored photograph of Carl Jung ...

Hand-colored photograph of Carl Jung in USA, published in 1910. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I don’t know how I missed this survey-style book while doing my doctorate on Carl Jung’s concept of synchronicity. Looking through Daimonic Reality today, I was stuck by how it mirrors many of the ideas I’ve been interested in for almost three decades.

Harpur’s commentary may not be stunning but it’s above average.

The author seems a bit hard on Jung, especially in regard to synchronicity. Harpur says that Jung still adheres to an “inner” vs. “outer” worldview. And that his views about the acausality of synchronicity retain a “whiff” of mechanism because for Jung synchonicity is “organized” by an archetype (p. 155).

I picked up on this causality/acausality issue in my Ph.D. thesis on synchronicity (see Synchronicity and Poststructuralism pp. 162-163). But I cut Jung a bit more slack because I felt he had a difficult job to do, talking about synchronicity from 1928- 1961. Back then, Jung had to choose the right words and categories to be effective. So I think he was a bit of a postmodern, “selling” his concept to a largely skeptical audience. If we view it that way, Jung wasn’t so much limited or confused but rather, pioneering and shrewd. — MC


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