Thursday, July 14, 2011

Einstein's Compass

In his classic biography of Albert Einstein, Einstein: The Life and Times, Ron Clark revisits an early detail of the young Einstein.
The story is simply told that when the boy (Albert Einstein) was five, ill in bed, his father showed him a pocket compass. What impressed the child was that since the iron needle always pointed in the same direction, whichever way the case was turned, it must be acted upon by something that existed in space-the space that had always been considered empty....

[W]hile he ( Einstein) confirmed that it actually happened he was also to put a gloss on its significance.
[ Ronald W. Clark; p 28-29].

Notwithstanding Einstein's own reservations on its implications, the story has been told and retold numerous times and in numerous ways by earnest parents hoping to inspire the non-inspired, by cognitive scientists trying to exemplify how the creative mind works, and by natural scientists and historians of science enthusiastically, in order to describe how paradigms develop.

Of course, for some biographers the incident is anecdotal. The beauty of anecdotes is that they take on mythic proportions as the story is communicated and, by force of human nature and its desire to derogate or emulate, blemished or embellished respectively. In this case, gravitation was either an innate idea of Einstein or an embryonic conception of the young genius Albert. In either case, it depicts the early stages of  conceptual scientific development.

Well, was young Albert's audacity well-founded. Is space as we know not empty, and if so, by what some thing is space occupied. For a while science thought that there was a medium-ether occupying space. There is also the common sense dictum: of course there are atoms in space. But what about in that space between atoms? Now some scientists theorize that there is some thing called dark matter; others think that maybe the fundaments of gravitation -gravitons- or the likes occupy space. Some even conjecture that gravitons may also be related in some way to dark matter. So far, different mathematics permit these diverse conjectures.

Einstein's Compass is for anyone interested in discovery. It is also for moms and dads who listen to the odd questions their children ask. Sometimes the questions sound scientific-they may well be. In fact, most children, when curious, display scientific attitudes. They may also just signpost an interest. But there is no such thing as just signposting when it comes to children, in fact when it comes to any form of human activity by anyone.

Einstein's Compass will try to orient the baby steps, narrate and comment the questions and anecdotes  that constitute and background the more exciting fundamentals of discovery. Nothing wrong with answering the child's question: Mom is space empty? with Some scientists think....Kids are intellectually resilient, so the more portals you open properly, the broader their horizons and clearer their visions.

Hope you enjoy the stories and the science that your children may inspire.

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