Why Einstein?

Without Einstein’s Relativistic corrections used in GPS systems, we could never “Catch ‘Em All”.

by Andrea Whitson

I’ll admit it now, but I wouldn’t at the start: I was looking for a reason to think teaching Einstein Adds a New Dimension was important to teach. Sure, we use Relativity in our everyday lives– the relativistic corrections to GPS measurements is what makes Pokémon Go possible, after all. And, without Quantum Mechanics LED lights, semiconductors, thin and light laptops and lasers wouldn’t work. And, the sky would not be blue. But, do we really need to teach this stuff to kids? Sure, they are interested in the ideas of gravitational waves and quantum entanglement and whether causality is real (and time travel is possible). But, isn’t that just for fun? Do we have time to teach them that as a science class?

I was somewhat swayed by hearing the grievances of some physicists I worked with when I worked in developing new bomb detection equipment[1]. “We don’t teach kids anything that is less than 100 years old…” they would complain. I thought by now that wouldn’t be true. But, in looking at the AP and SAT Physics and Chemistry exams, there is precious little on there that wouldn’t be perfectly appropriate for a Steampunk cosplay enthusiast (think late 1800’s).

But Einstein himself gave me the answer in the very first chapters of Joy Hakim’s excellent book. The thing that I had missed about Relativity and Quantum Mechanics is how elegantly they bring together a true understanding of the divided mind we still have in physics: Mechanics vs Electricity and Magnetism. Look at the AP and SAT tests or most undergraduate classes on Physics and you will still see these two at war. But, to understand Relativity and Quantum Mechanics is simply to bring the two together.

Quantum Mechanics (in the form of Rayleigh Scattering) is what gives us a blue sky

Remember, when Einstein came on the scene and decided to become a physicist, the best minds in the sciences were encouraging their best students not to. Everything that was important had been discovered already. I think this is one (but not the only) reason we are lucky that few of Einstein’s teachers thought of him as one of their best students. Perhaps no one took him aside and said, “Really? Physics? With a mind like yours you should…”

The shocking thing was that the ideas to revolutionize physics were already known and taught by everyone who had called themselves a physicist– or indeed a scientist– since Maxwell and Faraday. Maxwell wrote up a set of equations that described how electricity and magnetism worked together. And Newton, much earlier, had written up some equations for how everything moved. Everyone knew about these two sets of laws. How had no one noticed that Maxwell and Newton couldn’t both be right?!

In pulling together the hands-on and simulation-based homework for this class, I’ve learned to love it as a true capstone for the excellent series. It’s a story– with great characters and drama– of what happens when we truly understand the science Joy lays out for us in the previous two books and ask, “what does this mean?” We talk a great deal in the other books about what makes for a good scientist– things like the scientific method, experimentation, and being willing to take on the establishment– but, in this book, we add something important for young people who love science and plan to become scientists in the future: how do we use what we know to find something new?


[1] One of my favorite parts of that job was that we used so many particle accelerators that we’d assigned them part numbers. You could call the stockroom and they might have one on the shelf for you.

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