Chapter Eight — Einstein’s Universe
A Short History of Nearly Everything – by Bill Bryson
Chapter 8 — Einstein’s Universe
- Michelson and Morley, late in the 19th Century, determined that the speed of light was the same in all directions and at all seasons. Michelson was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for this work.
- In 1900, Max Planck unveiled a new “quantum theory” which proposed that energy was not a continuous thing (like flowing water) but rather was composed of individualized packets, which he called ‘quanta’.
- Albert Einstein’s famous equation, E = mc2 , postulated that mass and energy have an equivalence. They are two forms of the same thing, such that energy is liberated matter, and matter is energy waiting to happen. Since c2 (the speed of light multiplied by itself) is a truly enormous number, what the equation is saying is that there is a really huge amount of energy bound up in every material thing.
- An average-sized adult contains withing his or her modest physical frame no less that 7 x 1018 joules of potential energy. That is enough energy to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs (if one knew how to liberate that energy).
- We are not very proficient at getting all the energy out of matter — even a uranium bomb releases less than 1 percent of the energy it could release, if only we were more cunning.
- Einstein’s theory of relativity says that space and time are not absolute, but are ‘relative’ to both the observer and to the thing being observed. The faster one moves the more pronounced these effects become. We can never accelerate ourselves to the speed of light, and the harder we try (and the faster we go), the more distorted we will become, relative to an outside observer.
- Due to relativity, a person who flies across the United States will step from the airplane a quinzillionth of a second younger than those you left behind. Even in walking across a room you will very slightly alter you own experience of time and space. It has been calculated that a baseball thrown at a hundred miles an hour will pick up 0.000000000002 grams of mass on its way to home plate.
- Edwin Hubble, who deduced incredible astronomical facts during his lifetime, showed a level of distinction from an early age that was almost ludicrously golden. At a single high school track meet in 1906, he won the pole vault, shot put, discus, hammer throw, standing high jump. running high jump, and was on the winning mile-relay team. That same year, he set a state record for the high jump in Illinois.
- Astronomers today believe that there are perhaps 140 billion galaxies in the visible universe. Hence, if galaxies were represented by frozen peas, there would be enough of them to fill a large auditorium (the old Boston Garden or Royal Albert Hall).
- Annie Jump Cannon was the first to notice a star type known as a Cepheid variable that pulsated with a regular rhythm — a kind of stellar heartbeat. Cepheid stars are quite rare, but one of them is well-known to us. Polaris, the Pole Star, is a Cepheid.
- Cepheids are red giant stars, approaching the end of their stellar lives, and they burn their remaining fuel in such a way so as to produce a very rhythmic, reliable brightening and dimming.
- Hubble made the incredible discovery that our universe was composed of many large, independent galaxies, and that those galaxies were all moving away from us at a rapid speed.
- Hubble died of a heart attack in 1953. One last oddity awaited him. For reasons cloaked in mystery, his wife declined to have a funeral and never revealed what she did with his body. The whereabouts of the century’s greatest astronomer remain unknown.
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