Now And Then

“Alright, I suppose there’s no going down below the Universe’s Year Zero, but what about the other direction? Do you physics guys have a handle on Time’s Top?”

“That’d be Cosmology, Mr Feder. We physicists avoid theorizing about stuff we can’t check against data. Well, except for string theory. The far past leaves clues that astronomers like Cathleen can gather. Sad to say, though, we barely have a handle on Now.”

Cathleen grins. Al and Mr Feder go, “Whaaat?”

“No, really. One of Einstein’s insights was that two observers randomly and independently flying through space won’t be able to agree on whether two external events occurred simultaneously. They can’t even agree on what time it is now.”

“Oh, yeah, I know about that. I’ve read about how the GPS system needs to make corrections to account for what relativity does to the satellite timings.”

“You’re right, Al, but that’s a different issue. Some of that relativistic correction has to do with space compression because of Earth’s mass. The simultaneity problem is strictly about rapid motion and geometry.”

“Wait — geometry?”

“Relativistic geometry, which is a bit different from the kind that Descartes built.”

“Whoa, Sy, slow down there. Descartes was the ‘I think therefore I am‘ guy, right? What’s that got to do with geometry?”

“I guess I got a little ahead of myself there, didn’t I? OK. Yeah, Al, same Descartes. Grew up Catholic in France, was a professional mercenary soldier in the Thirty Years War, wound up fighting first on the Catholic French side and later on fought on the Protestant Dutch side but cross‑over was common, both directions. He realized he was in an ostensibly religious war that was really about who ruled over whom. That may have had something to do with him becoming a professional philosopher who rejected all religious dogmas in favor of what he could learn solely from logic and his own senses. That’s where his famous mantra came from — he started by proving to himself that he existed.”

“Logic led to geometry, I suppose.”

“Indeed, but a new kind, one that required a few innovations that Descartes developed. On the one hand, mathematicians traditionally expressed algebraic problems in words and some of them were doozies, like saying ‘the zenzizenzizenzic‘ where we’d just say x8. We got that simple but <ahem> powerful notation from Descartes. On the geometry side, he’d ditch all the confusing line-ending markers in a diagram like this one. Instead, he’d label the whole line representing a known quantity with a front-of-the-alphabet letter like a or b or c. A line representing an unknown quantity would get its label from the alphabet-trailers like x, y and z. Then he used the same character conventions and his new power notation to write and manipulate algebraic expressions. Those notational inventions were foundational for his bridge between algebraic and geometrical problems. Draw your problem with lines and curves, transform it to algebraic equations, solve that problem exactly, transform it back to geometry and you’re done. Or vice-versa.”

The mesolabe instrument (in red).

“That goes back to Descartes, huh?”

“Mm-hm. His big innovation, though, arose from a borrow from an early Greek gadget called a mesolabe. He proposed an idealized version that would let someone break a line into exact fractions or compare a length against a unit length. That broke the rules of classical Geometry but setting his mesolabe’s Y‑angle to 90° prompted him to name points by their distance along the x– and y‑axes. That’s the nub of the Cartesian coordinate system — a rectangular grid of numbered straight lines that go on forever. Graph paper, right? Wrap the grid around the Earth and you’ve got latitudes and longitudes. Add more numbered grid lines perpendicular to either grid and you’ve got z‑axis coordinates. Three coordinates let you name any point in space. Newton and all the physicists who came after him until the dawn of the 20th Century assumed Descartes’ nice, stable coordinate system.”

“20th Century — that’s when Einstein came on the scene. He broke that system?”

“Sure did. You’ve heard about bent space?”

“Who hasn’t?”

“Well, fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a fun ride.”

~~ Rich Olcott

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