Putting Einstein first: It’s time to stop lying to our children about physics
Sure, three hundred years ago, his discoveries about gravity and the laws governing motion revolutionised the world.
And yes, sure, those discoveries led to an incredibly useful mechanistic, deterministic view of the universe – in which one thing causes another.
It’s the story we all still learn in school. But Einstein proved it was wrong a century ago.
What did Newton get wrong?
While Newton saw time and space as absolute, Einstein proved that time is relative – it depends on height and speed.
And space? Einstein said that space is curved by matter. So parallel lines will always cross, because space is never flat.
It’s mind blowing. And it’s not what we’re taught in school.
Our kids still learn that time is absolute. And parallel lines never meet. In fact every bit of geometry you learn at school is approximate, because Newton’s fundamental assumption about the fixed nature of space was false.
But it doesn’t stop there.
When Einstein showed that light comes as little packets of energy (that we now call photons), he also predicted the physics of solar panels.
Louis de Broglie extended Einstein’s hypothesis, and proposed that everything, whether a cricket ball, an electron or a photon of light, combines both ‘bulletiness’ (the momentum you feel when you catch a heavy ball) with ‘waviness’ (like the ripples on a pond).
A consequence of all this is that our universe is far from mechanistic and deterministic. In fact, everything in the universe is statistical.
Reality is governed by strange but precise statistical rules. Reality is … fuzzy.
Einstein himself hated this conclusion and struggled to prove the absurdity of it. Famously saying: « God does not play dice. »
But God and dice aside, physicists went on to prove that reality is indeed fuzzy.
Richard Feynman described it like this: « The rules are so strange … the rules are so screwy that you can’t believe them! »
But this is the truth we all have to get used to. « If you don’t like it, » he said, « go somewhere else … to another universe! »
Physicists and chemists have been using these rules of the quantum world for decades to invent transistors, computers, lasers, nuclear reactors, cameras, mobile phones, whole body MRI scanners, drugs and medicines.
But kids are still learning the old stuff in school. The Newtonian world view — the lies.
Teachers are still teaching Newton’s physics because of a combination of Einstein’s physics being seen as too hard, and teachers themselves being more comfortable with the Newtonian physics they were trained in.
I believe that we owe it to our kids to stop the lies, and to teach them our best understanding of the universe.