Celebrating Einstein

Commonizing Uncommon Sense

The universe that Einstein discovered—in which time doesn’t pass at the same rate for everyone, space bends, and chance prevails where we would expect certainties—seems strange to us, but becomes easier to understand once we realize that our everyday situation is the unusual one.

Imagine that you had never known how different people’s customs are in other countries. One day you travel to another country, far from your own, where they do things not just slightly differently, but very differently. Not being forewarned of this, you might be greatly surprised, and find yourself having to spend a lot more time than you expected getting used to the differences.
Your understanding of the culture could develop in at least one of two different ways. One follows the way we most commonly deal with strange situations, by treating whatever we find new or different as exceptions to the scheme of things that are familiar to us. The other involves considering that our own culture might be the exception.
As long as what we’re used to really is what’s usual, treating the new as exceptional works well. But since much of what we find in a different culture is only “exceptional” to us, and usual to the people we’re visiting, this approach would have its limits. We might find the problem more obvious if we traveled, not just to one new place, but to many different places over time. If we stayed long enough in each new culture to get a sense of how each new way of life functioned, we might begin to realize that a great many “exceptions” to our perceived scheme exist, with many of these even different from each other.
In that case, we might realize that some of what is usual in our culture is not usual for the human race in general — that some of our ways, for good or ill, are the exceptions. That realization is the key to a second way of understanding new cultures, which, when applicable, is generally more reliable than the first way. If we had thus started from scratch, explored the world, and then reassessed our understanding of human nature in this way, we would have the evidence necessary to come to the following conclusions:
  • Much of what we’d assumed, consciously or unconsciously, to be universal truths about human nature are actually true of only certain societies or certain people.
  • Some things that we hadn’t thought were universal traits of societies will have turned out to be present in every culture we’d examined. This may include things that we were aware of but had thought to be common only in our own country or a few others. But it may also include things that exist in our own country of which we had never been aware until we saw many variations on them wherever we visited and noticed the universal features underlying all the variations.
And yet, having the evidence doesn’t mean we’d reach these conclusions automatically, though it makes it a lot more likely that we would. We might, unconsciously, keep following the habit of treating our own way of life as the usual one, and continue treating everything different as exceptional, even when it isn’t so. It might actually be easier to keep thinking of everything in our own culture as “normal” if our exposure to different cultures is gradual, and we learn about them one at a time, always able to compare each culture to our own without having occasion to step back and look at the whole pattern of all we’ve observed at once. But if we do consider all these cultures at once, we’re much better able to see which features really are usual and which are unusual.
When it comes to understanding human nature, we’re not really so limited by a lack of travel. With our current means of communication, it’s a lot easier than it once was to learn about differences in our customs and habits. While communication is not a substitute for travel—many things are most easily observed and learned firsthand—even communication without travel gives us enough information to help us distinguish universal human traits from local ones.
Communication and travel help us become less provincial about human nature. If we have enough of either, we can more readily sort out the universal from the particular when it comes to people.
But when it comes to the rest of nature, we do find ourselves starting out as somewhat provincial. The environment we live in, though diverse, is also in some ways fairly constant.
  • We don’t travel very fast in relation to each other or things near us. In our usual experience, a high speed is a thousand kilometers per hour. Even those of us who travel in outer space only travel at tens of thousands of kilometers per hour. The highest speed we know about is over a billion kilometers per hour.
  • We don’t ordinarily spend long times in free fall (“weightless”), or riding rocket sleds or centrifuges at several g’s. The gravitational field we inhabit has nearly the same strength everywhere on or near the earth’s surface, and few of us often accelerate enough to get a very different sensation of it. Yet there are gravitational fields throughout nature that are much more intense than that of the earth.
  • The objects we usually deal with close-up, whose sizes range from a little less than a millimeter (thread, hair, wire) to kilometers (roads, mountains), undergo processes that appear to imply certain cause-and-effect connections between events. But the processes involving the smaller objects that these are made from have a less direct cause-and-effect relationship than our usual experience would suggest. This means that even some events involving the larger objects themselves are not cause-and-effect related in quite the way we might suppose.
To be sure, people have made observations and done experiments involving phenomena far beyond the extremes of our usual environment. But as long as we lack much direct experience with these phenomena, especially those that defy our usual intuition, we may fall into the common habit of treating everything we hear about them as “exceptions” to the pattern of nature, and our own limited experience as the pattern. This is a major reason we may find much of modern science, interesting as it is, hard to understand. The main conclusions, once reached, are found to be remarkably uncomplicated—no more complicated, at any rate, than our knowledge of more familiar things. The problem isn’t complexity. We understand complicated things as they become familiar to us, while simple things, if we’re not yet used to them, can be hard to grasp.
As long as we’re trying to understand the unfamiliar in terms of what we already know, whether it’s an unfamiliar culture or unfamiliar features of nature itself, the unfamiliar may fail to make sense. If, instead, we think of the things that we’re used to, and the things we’re just now finding out about, both as particular cases in a more general pattern, we’ll be better prepared to understand both the new and the old—the new will make sense as we see the old in a pattern that encompasses each.
Much of the work of Albert Einstein, though begun a hundred years ago, dealt with such a large range of natural phenomena that many of these phenomena are still outside our ordinary experience. Yet their range includes our ordinary experience. To make sense of the new discoveries, it can help to not so much relate them to what we already know, but to try to see what’s familiar to us in terms of a more general view. Getting used to this more general view takes time, but taking the more general view to start with may make it easier to grasp those features of Einstein’s discoveries that have a reputation for difficulty.
We do have some advantages, though, that weren’t so common a hundred years ago. In the last century, technology has been gradually catching up with some of the phenomena with which Einstein had to grapple. So many of the things that were beyond the experience of Einstein’s original audience are at least closer to being common experiences now.
In the next several months, we plan to describe Albert Einstein’s most famous scientific accomplishments, along with some of his lesser-known achievements. And as an experiment of our own, we will try to avoid the temptation of trying to fit Einstein’s discoveries into the pattern of our everyday experience, by instead relating our experience to the more universal patterns Einstein found. In brief articles like this, we won’t be able to explain everything, but we hope the approach will make a good start!
Prepared by Dr. William Watson, Physicist
DOE Office of Scientific and Technical Information
Last Modified: 05/05/2005
Some links on this page may take you to non-federal websites. Their policies may differ from this site.