Tom Jonard's Relativity's Meaning Page

Everything is not relative.

Einstein's Theory of Relativity does not prove that everything is relative (Post-Modern Deconstructionists may leave the site now).  It preserves the laws of nature by assuming that the Speed of Light is a fundamental constant or law of nature and that time is not an independent flowing stream but an integral part of our world.  Classical Physics up to Einstein treated space and time as the absolute framework for all observation.  Einstein showed that they were not the absolutes they had been thought to be and replaced them with absolutes of the Speed of Light and Space-Time.  Observers of physical phenomena still always agree in their observations if they observe the correct quantities.  Though none occupies a special place and time this does not lead to a radical relativism but rather to a radical conformity or agreement.

Scientific subjectivity has been replaced with a new objectivity.

Since we normally experience co-moving frames of reference whose relative velocities and accelerations are low we do not experience the extreme effects described by Relativity everyday.  But this everyday worldview is precisely the object of "objective" science as it developed from Copernicus through the 19th century.  What Relativity shows is that that world view was not really objective but subjective in projecting a limited experience of the universe onto the whole.  It was said that all was like here.  But it is not.  The universe is not really like our small place and time, at least not in whole.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant said that we cannot experience the world as it really is because we have to do it through our subjective experience.  Einstein showed that Kant was right -- observation was a projection of our subjective experience.  Without further refinement what was taken as objective knowledge was really subjective.  And Kant was wrong -- it is possible to glimpse beyond subjectivity to things as they are by examining extreme conditions and places.

Relativity was prelude to Quantum Mechanics.

Relativity also set the stage for Quantum Mechanics (QM) -- the physics that succeeded all of classical physics with the exception of Relativity in the 20th century:

1)  It introduced the idea of observer involvement in the creation of observation.  Classical Physics had assumed that what observers observed was "out there" and independent of the observation.  As we have seen this is not true in Relativity.  The state of the observer will affect what they measure.  Some interpretations of QM carry this to an extreme and make even Relativity appear modest in comparison.

2)  It introduced the idea that reality was radically different from everyday experience.  If you think that the predictions of Relativity are counter-intuitive, well, you haven't seen nothing yet.  QM is downright weird by comparison.  It often seems to make the claim that physical entities can actually be two different things at once.

This turn of events cannot have been a happy one for Einstein.  He won his first Nobel Prize for his work in QM.  But as QM unfolded he became disenchanted with its seeming denial of the real world.  Einstein was a Realist and refused to believe the radical interpretations of QM.  He worked long and hard to come up with counter examples but the only result was QM was strengthened with each attempt.

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Created March 26, 2002,
© 2002, Thomas A. Jonard