Today marks 100 years since Einstein presented his Theory of General Relativity. Imagine the nerves, the hair, the primitive Powerpoint presentation. The physicist was just 26 at the time. At 26 I was directing a children’s general nativity. His theory is still widely accepted today, so how come we know so little about it? Or apparently care?
Einstein was Time magazine’s Person of the Century, but all that springs to my mind is crazy hair, E=MC2 written on a blackboard and small wobbly-headed statues. He lectured in London, was awarded a gold medal by the Royal Astronomical Society in London and his brain was even on display in London so you’d think some of his ideas might have filtered down to us Londoners. Nope. ‘But it’s all too complicated so we just shouldn’t worry about it. Where’s my Uber? What if they’ve lost my reservation?’
Enter 15-year-old Tavleen Kaur Wasan. Yep, a schoolgirl has taken it upon herself to fill the rest of us in on how the universe works in a two-minute video, and let me tell you, I’ll have some of what she’s having: a decent education. This stuff should be taught in schools or something...
From what I can make out, parts of Einstein’s theory can be explained through the common medium of toilet humour, so strap in. (I should point out that young Tavleen used a marble and a tangerine to illustrate this, but I thought I’d adult it up a bit). Einstein talks about ‘space-time’. No, that’s not what astronauts shout (à la Jim Carrey in ‘The Mask’) as they blast off: ‘It’s space time, baby!’, it’s actually the fabric of space. A black hole bends this fabric so much that nothing that enters it can leave. Imagine flushing your sea pickle down the loo: a part of you is gone for ever down that hole and it won’t be coming back. A black hole is like a giant, endless septic tank that never needs to be emptied.
But black holes are the extreme. Space-time can also bend around objects with a large mass. Now imagine the age-old practical joke of putting cling-film over the toilet seat (I bet even Albert did that one). The victim drops their mass (which represents an object like our sun) on to the cling film: it doesn’t disappear but it does bend the space-time cling film. This deftly illustrates that gravity is not just an attractive force (what a fitty!) as Isaac Newton imagined it, it’s actually the result of the bending of space-time, as demonstrated by the straining of your lawn-sausage on the cling film. Indeed, much of Einstein’s theory is crap. He said that time can also be stretched, so when you are lying hungover on the bathroom floor of your basement flat, time is literally going slower than when you are on a great Tinder date at the top of the Shard (you will need an atomic clock to prove this, though). He also said nothing moves faster than light, not even a dodgy curry.
If it takes a 15-year-old to make us realise that our education has also gone done the pan, then so be it, but let’s do her proud and really try and digest some of this stuff. Complicated doesn’t mean impossible and perhaps we all need to take a leaf out of Tavleen’s textbook and try a little harder. Maybe all those Einstein dolls are nodding in encouragement. Even if you don’t understand it, all this science stuff is incredibly useful for pub quizzes…