Questions with No Reply
J. P. Ostriker
J.P. Ostriker is an astrophysicist and the co-author of Heart of Darkness, which tells the saga of humankind’s quest to unravel the deepest secrets of the universe: dark matter and dark energy. Here is his story about how an Einstein thought experiment he encountered as a teenager changed his life.
When I was a high school student I drove my teachers crazy with incessant and insatiable curiosity about the natural world. Next to our pictures in the yearbook, one of the teachers had added a line for each student and for me it was “I thought of questions that have no reply.”
And for the questions that I had that my teachers could not or would not answer, I went to books. Einstein wrote several of these that were accessible to high school students, and they fascinated me. I remember a “thought experiment” presented in one of them: A scientist sets up an exquisite laboratory on a train and tests both Newton’s laws of mechanics and Maxwell’s laws of electricity and magnetism. And, hypothetically, one finds that both are correct to arbitrary precision.
Then the train begins to move and E shows that, since the laws transform differently with the velocity of the observer, they can no longer both be true! Therefore one (or both) theories must be false.
This amazed me. No experiment was necessary. Pure thought was all that was needed and any high school student who thought about it could have come to the same conclusion as Einstein, and could have invented special relativity to solve the problem! I thought that this was wonderful, truly wonderful. I resolved that I would pursue physics and think about simple and fundamental matters. It looked easy.
Well, needless to say it was not always easy, but it has always been fun. I’m thankful I had access to Einstein’s popular books when I was a teenager with more questions than answers.
Jeremiah P. Ostriker is professor of astrophysical sciences at Princeton University. He is author, with Simon Mitton, of Heart of Darkness: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Invisible Universe. His books include Formation of Structure in the Universe and Unsolved Problems in Astrophysics (Princeton).
Train tracks image from Shutterstock, copyright: phildaint