The American Scholar

The Gravity of the Situation

THE THEORY OF GENERAL RELATIVITY burst into public awareness when observations made off the west coast of Africa during a 1919 solar eclipse confirmed one of Albert Einstein’s most astonishing assertions: that large masses, like the sun, warp space and thus bend the path of light. Legend has it that Arthur Stanley Eddington, the British astronomer who corroborated the theory when he measured the angle of starlight deflection, was asked whether it was true that only three people in the world understood relativity. After a moment, Eddington supposedly replied: “Who’s the third?” Announcing relativity’s vindication, The New York Times had to explain who Einstein was (“a Swiss citizen,” it laconically offered) and, in the lead paragraph of its account, bluntly acknowledged that “it is not possible to put Einstein’s theory into really intelligible words.”

A century later, everything seems to have changed. If you believe the jacket copy, for the price of a book you now can understand relativity, quantum physics, cosmology, or pick your subtopic: black holes, subatomic particles, symmetry, electromagnetism, string theory, gravitational waves, the Higgs boson, quantum entanglement, the Big Bang, and on and on. Duck into any bookstore or search any online bookseller and you’ll find an ever-expanding section of popular offerings standing ready to initiate inquisitive readers into the latest scientific mysteries, and all without the need to understand math or have any feeling for experiment. (A growing number of websites offer the same.) It’s cheap. It’s easy. It’s entertaining.

It’s bogus.

Or so I have come to believe, many years after discovering Banesh Hoffman’s classic, The Strange Story of the Quantum (1947), while taking high school physics in the late 1950s. I’ve read hundreds of similar books since then, and they’re not all bad. Most are readable, even sprightly, often cloaked in infectious good spirits. The trouble is, familiarity breeds suspicion. If you try to keep up with developments, the stories become so well worn that, in succeeding books, you begin to notice subtle difficulties that the authors gloss over. After some time, you might begin to suspect that the accounts they provide are deflections from reality, like starlight around the sun, because the popularizers are loath to admit that a subject that enraptures them has loose ends, vague contours, or gaping holes. These writers’ longing to instill in readers their own passion and even reverence for the science often overwhelms their prudence. Instead of giving their readers the whole truth, popularizers take to papering over theoretical weaknesses with jargon, fuzzy talk, or even outright silence. Such obfuscations and omissions apply to some of the most basic elements of physics, like gravity, the Big Bang, the nature of space, the properties of subatomic particles, even how to measure and meaningfully describe the basic architecture of the universe.

THE PROBLEM OF GRAVITY

Have you ever thought hard about gravity? Chances are you’ve accepted it without critical reflection, but what is it, and how does it work?

Aristotle had a hypothesis: Some essence within all things, almost akin to a desire, moves them. Heavy things, like apples, dishware, and babies learning to walk, fall to the ground because they want to go downward, because they are of Earth and it’s in their nature to return—unlike, say, smoke, which Aristotle thought to be possessed

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