Sunday, October 19, 2008


I was reading Brian Greene's book, The Elegant Universe, last night. The first few chapters discuss Einstein's ideas on relativity, and I was in awe when I read this section of the chapter. I figured I'd share it with you. ("You" probably only being Lisa.)

Here's the excerpt:

Imagine that the leaders of two warring nations, sitting at opposite ends of a long negotiation table, have just concluded an agreement for a ceasefire, but neither wants to sign the accord before the other. The secretary-general of the United Nations comes up with a brilliant resolution. A light bulb, initially turned off, will be placed midway between the two presidents. When it is turned on, the light it emits will reach each of the presidents simultaneously, since they are equidistant from the bulb. Each president agrees to sign a copy of the accord when he or she sees the light. The plan is carried out and the agreement is signed to the satisfaction of both sides.

Flushed with success, the secretary-general makes use of the same approach with two other embattled nations that have also reached a peace agreement. The only difference is that the presidents involved in this negotiation are sitting at opposite ends of a table inside a train travelling along at constant velocity. Fittingly, the president of Forwardland is facing in the direction of the train’s motion while the president of Backwardland is facing in the opposite direction. Familiar with the fact that the laws of physics takes precisely the same form regardless of one’s state of motion so long as this motion is unchanging, the secretary-general takes no heed of this difference, and carries out the light bulb-initiated signing ceremony as before. Both presidents sign the agreement, and along with their entourage of advisers, celebrate the end of hostilities.

Just then, word arrives that fighting has broken out between people from each country who had been watching the signing ceremony from the platform outside the moving train. All those on the negotiation train are dismayed to hear that the reason for the renewed hostilities is the claim by people of Forwardland that they have been duped, as their president signed the agreement before the president of Backwardland. As everyone on the train—from both sides—agrees that the accord was signed simultaneously, how can it be that the outside observers watching the ceremony think otherwise?

Let’s consider in more detail the perspective of an observer on the platform. Initially the bulb on the train is dark, and then at a particular moment it illuminates, sending beams of light speeding toward both presidents. From the perspective of a person on the platform, the president of Forwardland is heading toward the emitted light while the president of Backwardland is retreating. This means, to the platform observers, that the light beam does not have to travel as far to reach the president of Forwardland, who moves toward the approaching light, as it does to reach the president of Backwardland, who moves away from it. This is not a statement about the speed of the light as it travels toward the two presidents—we have already noted that regardless of the state of motion of the source or the observer, the speed of light is always the same. Instead, we are describing only how far, from the vantage point of the platform observers, the initial flash of light must travel to reach each of the presidents. Since this distance is less for the president of Forwardland than it is for the president of Backwardland, and since the speed of light toward each is the same, the light will reach the president of Forwardland first. This is why the citizens of Forwardland claim to have been duped.

When CNN broadcasts the eyewitness account, the secretary-general, the two presidents, and all their advisers can’t believe their ears. They all agree that the light bulb was secured firmly, exactly midway between the two presidents and that therefore, without further ado, the light it emitted travelled the same distance to reach each of them. Since the speed of the emitted light to the left and right is the same, they believe, and in fact observed, that the light clearly reached each president simultaneously.

Who is right, those on or off the train? The observations of each group and their supporting explanations are impeccable. The answer is that both are right. … The only sublety here is that the respective truths seem to be contradictory. An important political issue is at stake: Did the presidents sign the agreement simultaneously? The observations and reasoning above ineluctably lead us to the conclusion that according to those on the train they did while according to those on the platform they did not. In other words, things that are simultaneous from the viewpoint of some observers will not be simultaneous from the viewpoint of others, if the two groups are in relative motion.

This is a startling conclusion. It is one of the deepest insights into the nature of reality ever discovered. Nevertheless, if long after you set down this book you remember nothing of the chapter except for the ill-fated attempt at d├ętente, you will have retained the essence of Einstein’s discovery. Without highbrow mathematics or a convoluted chain of logic, this completely unexpected feature of time follows directly from the constancy of the speed of light, as the scenario illustrates. Notice that if the speed of light were not constant but behaved according to our intuition based on slow-moving baseballs and snowballs, the platform observers would agree with those on the train. …

The constancy of the speed of light requires that we give up the age-old notion that simultaneity is a universal concept that everyone, regardless of their state of motion, agrees upon. The universal clock previously envisioned to dispassionately tick off identical seconds here on earth and on Mars and on Jupiter and in the Andromeda galaxy and in each and every nook and cranny of the cosmos does not exist. On the contrary, observers in relative motion will not agree on which events occur at the same time. Once again, the reason that this conclusion—a bona fide characteristic of the world we inhabit—is so unfamiliar is that the effects are extremely small when the speeds involved are those commonly encountered in everyday experience. If the negotiating table were 100 feet long and the train were moving at 10 miles per hour, platform observers would “see” that the light reached the president of Forwardland about a millionth of a billionth of a second before it reached the president of Backwardland. Although this represents a genuine difference, it is so tiny that it cannot be detected directly by human senses. If the train were moving considerably faster, say at 600 million miles per hour, from the perspective of someone on the platform the light would take almost 20 times as long to reach the president of Backwardland compared with the time to reach the president of Forwardland. At high speeds, the starting effects of special relativity become increasingly pronounced.

Greene, Brian. (1999). The Elegant Universe. New York: Vintage Books. 34-37 (all italics in original)

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Tonight's Debate.

I had forgotten why I didn't like watching debates. Watching the debate tonight helped me remember pretty quickly. It was probably the most frustrating thing I've had to deal with all day.

Neither of the candidates stuck to answering the questions. Nearly every single response was polished off with a quick jab at their opponent. The resulting response was laced with refutations, and subsequently polished off with another jab. It was like watching twelve year-old girls bicker in front of the principal, so they can't get too heated.

As if that wasn't annoying enough, neither of the candidates gave a damn about anything Tom Brokaw said. When given 1-minute intervals for follow-ups, the candidates would spend 5 minutes bashing their opponent. Tom must've reminded them at least 5 times that they're only allowed one minute to respond, but they persisted. Both candidates felt it was important to ignore the format of the discussion almost entirely, just to point fingers, and argue through their big BS smiles.

I don't think anyone really won. I mean, McCain sucked 'cause he sucks just like he always sucks. That's just what you do when you suck... you suck.


Have fun voting... (for Obama)

What is this blog about?

I've decided to keep my other blog,, entirely art-based. From now on, you will only see posts containing art, talking about art, or notifying readers about website updates.

Here, I'll post stuff about, well... whatever I want to talk about. Give it a few weeks. I'm sure a pattern will emerge.