Chapter 23 of 'Einstein' - all chapters at www.bryantwieneke.com/blog
23. Mileva stood in the doorway and stared at her husband. She had not reacted to his last statement, and he stood facing her, waiting to see what she was going to say. Instead of speaking, however, she came up and put her arms around his neck. She hugged him. Not a perfunctory hug, but a tight, full-body one. He was caught off-guard, but not so much that he forgot to hug back. He felt the contours of her body and smelled the freshness of her hair as her head rested against his chest. They held each other closely, saying nothing, until she finally relaxed her hold. “Do not come to bed, Albert,” she said evenly, staring into his eyes in the semi-darkness. “Keep working as long as you want.” Then she patted him twice on the behind and walked away. Albert watched her disappear into the darkness of the sitting room. It was the most supportive moment he had experienced from his wife in a long time. The adrenaline was coursing through his system. “Good night, Mileva,” Albert called, but she was probably already in the bedroom. He walked into the sitting room, still relishing the feel of her body against his. He was encouraged that she would listen to him at all, given their relationship over the past weeks. At this point, he expected resistance to anything he suggested, whether it was what to have for dinner or a new theory of mechanics. This time, however, there was no animosity in her voice; she brought up only scientific points and listened when he countered them with his logic. It was a very good sign. Finally, he carried his tea into the study. He sat down to face the penciled equations and text demonstrating that simultaneous events did not exist. As he reviewed them with his practiced eye, he could see that he had done a thorough job. He had no doubt that the logic of his argument was solid.
The next step needed to be equally unambiguous. He began to consider the logic that would prove that the concept of absolute time was a fallacy. His proof would be an attempt to destroy one of the foundations of modern mechanics and an essential element in Newton’s physical world. Virtually every practicing scientist believed in time as a regular, linear phenomenon. There could be nothing soft in Einstein’s proof because if there were, a hundred physicists would use this softness to destroy his argument and criticize his methods. He could not make a mistake or take anything for granted. Any assumptions had to be firmly grounded and thoroughly explained. He thought for a few minutes, sipping his tea and gazing at his desktop. He did not see the mess his papers made on it. He saw only pieces of a puzzle: absolute time, relative time, trolleys with theoretically exploding asteroids, and trains with beams of light coming and going. A critical piece of the puzzle was the constant speed of light, which would continue to be Albert’s inflexible measuring device. Eventually, this constant and the Newtonian absolutes would clash, just as it had clashed with the concept of simultaneous events. He would establish – logically and mathematically – that absolute time could not exist if the speed of light remained constant. To make his argument, Albert would need to compare observers’ points of view again. These points of view, or frames of reference, would once again be represented by coordinate systems. In Newton's absolute world, there was one absolute coordinate system. It was assumed that this coordinate system applied under all circumstances, including motion. However, in this experiment, there would be many coordinate systems, each representing a different frame of reference and type of motion. Each coordinate system would have its own x, y, and z axis. Equations on the different coordinate systems could therefore be compared. Einstein wrote it this way: “There is no one coordinate system for time, length, or speed. The measurement of any of these phenomena depends on the coordinate system with which it is begin measured. The only exception is the speed of light, which is constant across all coordinate systems.”
Albert played out the mathematics in multiple coordinate systems. In his equations and exposition of logic, the constant speed of light forced everything else to vary, move, and adjust. Time was one of those elements, but length would also vary, as well as speed. Albert knew these facts would come in handy later, as evidence of a comprehensive principle of relativity. For now, however, Einstein showed with his equations that if the speed of light never varied, time had to vary, had to adjust. In other words, time could not be an absolute. It had to be a variable to make the mathematics come out right. He worked for an hour, then a little more, and looked up. He was tired, but he was also gratified. In fact, if it weren’t the middle of the night, he probably would have done a victory dance. Instead, under the circumstances, he smiled briefly and raised his fists in the air. The mathematics showed conclusively that the concept of a constant speed of light could never be compatible with the concept of absolute time. He had been confident that his proof would confirm this hypothesis, but there was something about seeing the proof in writing, especially in the solid, concrete language of mathematics, that made it real. It allowed an abstraction to become reality. Albert sat back in his chair, tilted his head back and rolled it around, hearing slight popping noises as he did so. He was pleased with his work and had a sense of accomplishment. He knew it was right. Mathematics didn't lie. While some of the math was extremely complicated and required considerable effort to work through, he had not encountered any surprises from the moment he realized that the notion of simultaneous events was the key. Equations representing time and motion provided the fulcrum by which he had begun to dislodge the Newtonian rock from its foundation at the center of mechanics.
Albert felt as if a great burden had been lifted from his shoulders. The idea that something was wrong in the field of mechanics, that everything was slightly askew, had been in the back of his mind for years. Suddenly, however, with his insight this evening, that uncomfortable feeling had begun to disappear, leaving in its place a promise that the foundation of the field of mechanics was about to be restored.
Of course, proving that absolute time was a myth only attacked a small part of the Newtonian universe. It would take more than that to dislodge laws that had been gospel for centuries – and then to replace them with something as squishy as relativism.
But that was exactly what he planned to do.