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Of Einstein, goldfish, burgers and relativity

David Colburn
Posted 5/26/21

“The Big Lie.”Thanks to the 45th’s refusal to accept that he lost the last presidential election, that phrase has become almost a daily part of our vernacular. “The Big …

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Of Einstein, goldfish, burgers and relativity

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“The Big Lie.”
Thanks to the 45th’s refusal to accept that he lost the last presidential election, that phrase has become almost a daily part of our vernacular. “The Big Lie” is used by liberals as shorthand not only for the Donald’s outlandish claims, but also for the avalanche of unfounded claims uttered and failed lawsuits filed by Sydney, Rudy, Punch and Judy, and any other “flavor of the day” barrister the Trumpster can find who will work for wages promised, but hardly ever paid.
But as the somewhat controversial Cyber Ninja recount of Arizona votes by rabid Trumplicans drags on, “The Big Lie” means something entirely different to them. The big lie they’re trying to debunk is that Sleepy Joe actually won the election fair and square.
Which is to say that “The Big Lie” is therefore a phrase that is relative.
And that brings us to Albert Einstein, his theory of special relativity, and the humongous lie next to which “The Big Lie” barely registers as a tiny little fib – the lie of time.
Einstein didn’t actually tell us time itself is a lie. Our belief that time is constant, he said, is the lie. The length of a second, a minute, or a day is never absolute, Einstein said. The rates at which they pass shift depending on position, speed and gravity. Change any or all, and time changes with them.
Maybe you’ve seen a science fiction movie where an astronaut hurtling at unbelievable speed through space stays young while his relatives back on Earth age and die? That’s an example of Einstein’s theory – time literally slows down when you’re going so incredibly fast.
But let’s look at an example of relativity we can relate to.
A car’s GPS navigation system can be maddening when it tells you to “turn left” and you end up almost driving into Lake Vermilion because you listened to it. But if satellite scientists didn’t pay attention to Einstein, your GPS locators and navigation units would be complete junk less than a day after you bought them. And why?
Relativity, that’s why. Moving at speed of about 8,700 mph, the seconds ticking on those satellite clocks pass a tiny bit slower than here on Earth. But they’ve also escaped three-fourths of the pull of Earth’s gravity by being all the way up there, and according to Einstein their clocks move faster because of that. Got that? Slower and faster at the same time. When people more brilliant than I do the math, a second for a GPS satellite way up there passes 38 millionths of a second faster than a second for you or me down here.
That might not seem like much, but if those scientists weren’t smart enough to figure this out and constantly adjust for it, your GPS would be wrong by six miles the day after you bought it, and six more the day after that. And the primary underwater structure for fish in Lake Vermilion would probably be comprised of wayward Chevys and Fords by now.
Try as I might, however, trying to reconcile Einstein’s theory with my own experience of changing time is nearly impossible. I know, with absolute certainty, that time changes even without changes in speed or gravity.
I was in eighth grade the first time I noticed seconds moved more slowly than they were supposed to. I was sitting quite perfectly still in Mr. Burton’s science classroom, where I was serving after-school detention for leaping out of a window during Ben Barrett’s civics class to run to a nearby gas station for candy bars. Peer pressure, I say.
I hadn’t stopped at my locker on the way to detention to pick up a book or homework, so there I was, seated right next to Mr. Burton’s aquarium with its loudly buzzing air compressor, alternately staring for an hour at goldfish and the achingly slow red second hand on the classroom clock. In that situation, an hour is an hour, right, Einstein? Not that day. Not even close.
It happened again just this past Friday at, of all places, the Cook VFW during the reboot of the always popular and terribly missed Burger Night.
I didn’t get there until 6:45 p.m., and when they took my order, they placed it on a stack of others that seemingly reached from here to the moon, or at least one of those GPS satellites. I was in for a long wait.
The passage of time inside the Cook VFW that night defied the special relativity theory of Mr. Smarty Pants Albert Einstein in numerous ways. I’m seated in a chair on good old Mother Earth, so there are no speed or gravity differentials to compute. A second is a second is a second, right, Big Al?
Wrong. Time slows down, seconds stretch longer and longer because of variables his theory can’t accommodate. Seconds grew longer every time a waitress carrying a glorious platter of burgers and fries passed me by. They grew longer every time I heard the sizzling of another basket of fries dropped into hot oil. Every time a table of fat and happy customers emptied, time dragged its heels a little more. And when I actually started feeling hungry? Yes, you know the routine.
It was a long wait, 70 minutes. But, conditioned to drive-through fast food service over the years (another thing Al overlooked), it seemed much longer. And then suddenly, time raced ahead. I can’t eat a whole burger in five seconds, but I’ll swear that’s all the time it took to wolf that baby down.
Of course, the explanation is really that time itself didn’t change, only my perception of it did. But as a wise mentor once told me, a person’s perception is their reality.
I’ll admit it. Even though I don’t fully understand it, Einstein was right. Time IS relative, and his ideas have checked out in countless experiments over the years.
But frankly, I would appreciate Einstein a lot more if he had provided a solid explanation for how the smell of an elusive burger, the sight of a northern Minnesota sunset, the distant sound of a calling loon, or the feeling of falling in love all have the power to make time stand absolutely and relatively still.

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