Einstein and the Average Man

Relativity. By Sir Oliver Lodge Doran.

IT is natural that the average busy man perplexed with his personal affairs should not feel himself greatly concerned with the scientific theories of his time. Let the physicist and the natural philosopher pry into the secrets of the atom by way of determining if they may, the ultimate constitution of matter. Matter may indeed be no more, in some last analysis, than intricately related points of stress in a universal magnetic field, whatever that means. That does not affect one’s practical affairs, it would appear, for one must wrestle with matter, not as it may be, but as it seems — and it is sometimes a stubborn stuff. The average man is willing to accept the hypothetical ether as something quite as real as payday, if you insist, but he can not use it in his business; and the question as to whether or not there are any dependable absolutes knocking about this mysterious cosmos of ours troubles him not at all.

Nevertheless, it can be shown that there is a closer relation between the dominant intellectual theories of a time and the everyday life of men than is commonly suspected. Whether or not the theories by which men of any age attempt to explain their world to themselves grow out of the general temper of the time, or vice versa, it would be impossible to say with certainty. Perhaps the two interact. Certain it is that the things men are commonly persuaded to strive for are always strangely justified by the intellectual theories peculiar to the time; and even the most abstruse theory that is favored by the higher intellectual levels has a way of seeping down through all the social strata as a modifying influence upon the unconsidered notions by which men live, however little that influence may be suspected.

In the matter of creating cosmologies, it may well seem to one, who is not unacquainted with the history of human thought, that men may merely shape and reshape the universe in keeping with their dominant desires at the time, seeking what they wish to find and finding it; and that we are now no nearer to the solution of the ancient mystery of things than when our dreams were simpler.

A being, unacquainted with human music and the esctacies of the dance, would be greatly embarrassed to explain the rhythmic movements of a throng seen through the windows of a soundproof ballroom. But we may be sure that he would hit upon some ingenious theory in keeping with his own prevailing notions. If he could only hear the music, it might all be simpler. To what unheard music may the atoms dance, or whatever it is that moves to make the shifting patterns of our world?

An age of materialistic persuasions in practice has a materialistic science; or turn it around if you wish. The truth has an uncanny habit of reading well both ways.

There was a time, not so long ago, when we were still convinced that there were absolute standards for the judging of many things, from art to personal conduct. Some, no doubt, still believe so, but it seems scarcely the fashion. Some mourn this tendency as a simple manifestation of original human cussedness on the rampage: but perhaps the correct explanation is far less simple. New values can come into being only through the breaking down of old forms; and as human beings, in the process of becoming more so, we are surely far from finished in our conception of values. We can stand a great deal of experimenting yet.

But what should strike us as interesting is the fact that sud-denly in the midst of our revolt against the old standards conceived as absolute, came what is widely acclaimed as the master intellectual structure of our generation — Einstein’s theory of universal relativity. Whether or not it may be regarded as a colossal work of creative art expressed in mathematical symbols, or a purely scientific structure in the veritable stuff of fact, it expresses essentially, on a cosmic scale, a sublimation of the mood that characterizes our generation.

Perhaps if our generation could understand what Einstein’s meaning is in all its implications, we might achieve more genuine liberty and less license. For it is the central idea in his thesis that, although there are no absolutes — standards valid throughout the universe — yet there may be truths that are unalterable within a given “reference scheme.” And certainly, for the individual, human society in its broader relations, is such a “reference scheme.”

There have been many attempts to offer popular explanations of the Einstein theory. Einstein himself, several years ago, attempted to tell us, in a little book, just what he meant; but there must have been many readers who wished that he might kindly begin all over and explain his explanations.

That is exactly what Sir Oliver Lodge has done for him in the lean and commonsensical book here presented. Naturally there can be no simplified explanation of the theory in its complete mathematical form; but a general understanding of it in so far as it may modify the common attitudes of men, is now at last made possible to almost anyone who may sincerely care to know. — J. G. N.