Bangkok, 14 June 2015

Who hasn’t heard of the theory of relativity? I mean, everyone has, right? Apart maybe from some Amazonian tribes who’ve only just been discovered.

uncontacted tribe

And of course everyone has heard of Albert Einstein, who came up with the theory in the first place.


OK, this photo may suggest that Einstein was not a very serious fellow, so let’s throw in a more solemn photo of him, taken a year before he published the special theory of relativity in 1905.


(as we all undoubtedly know, this is the first of two theories of relativity; Albert published the general theory of relativity in 1916).

1905, by the way, was Einstein’s annus mirabilis. His paper on the special theory of relativity was one of four seminal papers he published that year in the highly respected Annalen der Physik; the other three were on the photoelectric effect, on Brownian motion, and on mass-energy equivalence (you know, E=mc2, that one). He was one hell of clever guy, no doubt about it. No wonder he got the Nobel prize! Should have got two, if you ask me.

Anyhoo, the special theory of relativity, known as STR to conoscenti like me, has two very interesting predictions: the faster you go, the smaller you get and the slower time passes. So you get squeezed tighter and tighter slower and slower. And the amazing thing is, you wouldn’t notice you’re getting all squished and that your Rolex is running slower! To you, everything looks completely normal. Like I said, Einstein was a pretty amazing guy.

Well, of course science fiction writers latched onto the second of these predictions – so-called time dilation to conoscenti like me – like that leach latched onto my leg many decades ago. For instance, they have imagined some poor married astronaut going off on an interstellar journey, travelling at near the speed of light for a couple of years and then coming back, also at near the speed of light, TO FIND HIS WIFE AN OLD CRONE! At his super speed, he has only aged a few years, but his wife, traveling at the Earth’s much slower pace, has aged decades. Amazing thought, no? This plot line was the basis of the original “Planet of the Apes” movie of 1968 (no doubt only old fuddy-duddies like me even remember that there was such a movie). The astronaut hero, Charlton Heston, has been on super-fast intergalactic travel and crashes onto a planet, which he discovers is run by apes.

heston and the apes

Only at the end of the movie, after many super exciting adventures, does he realize that the planet is actually Earth, hundreds of years after he had left it.

heston and statue of liberty

In the real world, it took a while for clever scientists to design experiments to test Einstein’s predictions. Time dilation was only proved for the first time in 1938, by two fellows at Harvard. To be honest, their experiment was so clever that I don’t understand it. I understand much better an experiment carried out down the road, at MIT, in 1963, which involved measuring the number of muons whizzing by at the top of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire and the amount whizzing into MIT’s campus. You see, as muons rain down from the outer layers of the atmosphere, where they are created, they decay, like uranium atoms, and clever scientists know the speed with which they decay.


So if you measure the muon whizz-by rate at the top of the mountain as well as the number of muons so whizzing, and if you know the muon decay rate as well as the difference in height between Mt. Washington and the MIT campus, then you can calculate how many muons should have decayed away before reaching said campus, and you can compare that to the actual number you measure whizzing into your lab on campus. And you would find many more arriving than you calculated! BUT, if you now went back to the blackboard


(or whiteboard in this day and age) and factored in Einstein’s time dilation effects, then the difference between what you calculated and what you measured would pretty much disappear. Because, you see, while you, the clever scientist in your MIT lab, was saying “well, it should take one millisecond for a muon to go from the height of Mt. Washington to the height of my lab”, the muon, speeding along at something near the speed of light, would glance at its Rolex and say “hang on a millisec, it only took me one microsecond to get here, so I ain’t decayed yet.” Clever, no?

Of course, all these experiments cost a lot of money. I have just discovered a much cheaper experiment proving the time dilation effect, although admittedly it takes a good deal longer to carry out. It came to me in a flash a few days ago. I saw a shop, which proudly proclaimed that it had been established in 1975. “Pah!”, I said “that’s just yesterday”. But then I thought, “Hang on. If in 1975 I had seen a shop proclaiming that it had been established in 1935, I would have said, ‘Wow, that’s a long time ago!'”. Which proves time dilation incontrovertibly: as each of us moves faster and faster through life towards the grave, time past seems to go by slower and slower. QED, as Einstein would have said in his heavy German accent.

I wonder if I can get this proof published in Nature?


Uncontacted tribe: http://b.vimeocdn.com/ts/125/234/125234174_640.jpg (in http://all-that-is-interesting.com/last-uncontacted-tribes)
Einstein with tongue out: http://theartmad.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Albert-Einstein-Tongue-Wallpaper-4.jpg (in http://theartmad.com/wallpapers-of-albert-einstein/albert-einstein-tongue-wallpaper-4/)
Young Einstein: http://blogs.esa.int/atv/files/2013/07/Einstein_patentoffice.jpg (in http://blogs.esa.int/atv/2013/07/04/atv-made-in-switzerland-2/einstein_patentoffice/)
Heston and the apes: https://aworldoffilm.files.wordpress.com/2014/04/u4s4b3xrz5gohwzo2knedqil7bf.jpg (in http://aworldoffilm.com/2014/04/02/planet-of-the-apes-franklin-j-shaffner-1968-niall-mcardle/)
Heston and the statue of liberty: http://25fps.cz/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/www.monstermagazineworld.blogspot.complanetaopic1.jpg (inhttp://25fps.cz/2011/alec-charles-cz/)
Muons: http://www.physi.uni-heidelberg.de/Einrichtungen/FP/anleitungen/F13/jpg/cosmics.jpg (in http://www.science20.com/quantum_diaries_survivor/muon_tomography_who_leading_research)
Blackboard: http://alphanumericjournal.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/mathematics-chalkboards_003104581.jpg (in http://alphanumericjournal.com/)


Beijing, 22 January 2013

Readers of my posts will perhaps know that I have a certain fondness for Chinese porcelain. So it should come as no surprise to them to hear that when I read in the China Daily of an exhibition at the Capital Museum on porcelain I immediately suggested to my wife that we visit it. Which we did this weekend.

The exhibition was of porcelain ordered by the Empress Dowager Cixi (the last real imperial ruler of China). I’m afraid to say that it was a disappointment. The porcelain on show was undoubtedly of the highest quality, but the designs were … well, twee is perhaps the best way to describe them. Lots of canary yellow background, and lavish use of birds and butterflies as motifs.

Somewhat disconsolately we went to see what else the museum was offering. There was an exhibition from Taipei, from the Museum of World Religions, and for lack of anything better we visited that. It was nothing special, just a collection of religious memorabilia from various world religions. So we left that exhibition even more disconsolate than before and went to the museum shop. We were running a listless eye over what was on offer when something caught our attention. It was a small something – we were not sure what it was – which, critically, had written on it “MIT chapel”. We had to buy it.

museum purchase 002

I should explain: my wife and I were married in that chapel, I was doing my graduate studies at MIT at the time. It’s a lovely chapel, designed by the Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen. Probably his most well known works are the old TWA Flight Center at JFK Airport and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri. He did many other big works for corporations and governments, but he also did a number of smaller, more intimate works like the MIT chapel.

From the outside the chapel doesn’t look like much, just a small circular brick building set down on a lawn and some trees.


Snow makes it more interesting.


The interior, on the other hand, has a wonderful feel to it. The first thing that strikes you as you enter the chapel is the altar bathed in light streaming down from the skylight above it, while the installation over the altar leaves you very much with the sense of angel dust raining lightly down from on high.


Then there is the wall. Outside, it is a normal circle. Inside, it is wavy and is roughened by bricks sticking slightly out of the wall.  It also holds a regular pattern of bricks that reminds me of the ventilation systems used in brick barns in northern Italy.


And then there is the organ, small but perfect, in its organ loft.


Our friend who volunteered to take the photos failed miserably (he forgot to press some button or other on the camera), so we have very few photos of the wedding. But it is all still fresh in our minds. My wife wore a pink tailleur and I a dove grey suit. She kept that tailleur for many years, while a rapidly increasing girth meant that I had to abandon the suit quite quickly. We had come up with our own vows – the parish priest had grumbled at this, asking why we wanted to abandon the beauty of the traditional vows, but we had insisted. A copy of them slumbers on together with all the rest of our stuff in storage in Vienna – we have carried them with us everywhere we have gone. We had our rings designed by a goldsmith in Milan: double gold bands, which echoed the design of the engagement ring I had given my wife from the same goldsmith. My mother-in-law, who was a great lover of music, chose the organ music (not Mendelssohn’s wedding march …). My parents and a couple of siblings had driven down from Canada, and the rest of the chapel was filled with university friends from MIT and Johns Hopkins, where my wife was doing her graduate studies. After the wedding, we had all gone downtown to a restaurant on Boston Commons for our lunch. No speeches, nothing like that; just good food. Because of timing, we had gone on our honeymoon before the wedding, in the Shenandoah Valley, together with my mother-in-law (I liked her a lot …). Immediately after the wedding, we started classes again.

So I’m sure my readers understand why we just had to buy that article with “MIT chapel” written on it (which, by the way, turned out to be a small case containing a tiny pad of ruled paper, a ruler, and an unsharpened pencil – quite where the connection was with MIT remains a mystery).


MIT chapel: http://ad009cdnb.archdaily.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/1297993341-mit-chapel-wikimedia-commons2-375×500.jpg
MIT chapel-winter: http://mw2.google.com/mw-panoramio/photos/medium/6339334.jpg
MIT chapel inside-altar: http://farm4.staticflickr.com/3383/3478369283_08678cfd7a_z.jpg
MIT chapel inside-wall: http://jmcvey.net/sylva/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/chapel_interior_wall2.jpg
MIT chapel-organ: http://ad009cdnb.archdaily.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/1297993330-mit-chapel-caribbeanfreephoto.jpg