Atomic Theory

‘[…] when atomic theory was first proposed, it sounded pretty crazy. And yes, we call it ‘Atomic Theory’, using the scientific definition of theory, which is “a well-tested set of ideas that explains many disparate observations”, not the colloquial definition of theory, which is “a guess.” But luckily there’s no-one running around any more saying “atoms are just a theory.”

But it wasn’t that long ago that people were running around saying that. You want to know who settled it for good? Einstein! Atoms had been postulated for a long time by the 20th century, but it wasn’t until Einstein mathematically proved the existence of atoms and molecules in 1905 that the matter was truly settled. And you thought Einstein was all about relativity and E=mc2, he also proved atoms exist! Continue reading

On Relativity

“When you sit with a nice girl for two hours, you think it’s only a minute. But when you sit on a hot stove for a minute, you think it’s two hours. That’s relativity.”

– Albert Einstein

On Stupidity and Genius

“The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits.”

– Albert Einstein

The Natural-law Argument

‘Then there is a very common argument from natural law. That was a favourite argument all through the eighteenth century, especially under the influence of Sir Isaac Newton and his cosmogony. People observed the planets going around the sun according to the law of gravitation, and they thought that God had given a behest to these planets to move in that particular fashion, and that was why they did so. That was, of course, a convenient and simple explanation that saved them the trouble of looking any further for explanations of the law of gravitation.

Nowadays we explain the law of gravitation in a somewhat complicated fashion that Einstein has introduced. I do not propose to give you a lecture on the law of gravitation, as interpreted by Einstein, because that again would take some time; at any rate, you no longer have the sort of natural law that you had in the Newtonian system, where, for some reason that nobody could understand, nature behaved in a uniform fashion. We now find that a great many things we thought were natural laws are really human conventions. You know that even in the remotest depths of stellar space there are still three feet to a yard. That is, no doubt, a very remarkable fact, but you would hardly call it a law of nature. And a great many things that have been regarded as laws of nature are of that kind.

On the other hand, where you can get down to any knowledge of what atoms actually do, you will find they are much less subject to law than people thought, and that the laws at which you arrive are statistical averages of just the sort that would emerge from chance. There is, as we all know, a law that if you throw dice you will get double sixes only about once in thirty-six times, and we do not regard that as evidence that the fall of the dice is regulated by design; on the contrary, if the double sixes came every time we should think that there was design. The laws of nature are of that sort as regards a great many of them. They are statistical averages such as would emerge from the laws of chance; and that makes this whole business of natural law much less impressive than it formerly was.

Quite apart from that, which represents the momentary state of science that may change tomorrow, the whole idea that natural laws imply a lawgiver is due to a confusion between natural and human laws. Human laws are behests commanding you to behave a certain way, in which you may choose to behave, or you may choose not to behave; but natural laws are a description of how things do in fact behave, and being a mere description of what they in fact do, you cannot argue that there must be somebody who told them to do that, because even supposing that there were, you are then faced with the question “Why did God issue just those natural laws and no others?” If you say that he did it simply from his own good pleasure, and without any reason, you then find that there is something which is not subject to law, and so your train of natural law is interrupted. If you say, as more orthodox theologians do, that in all the laws which God issues he had a reason for giving those laws rather than others — the reason, of course, being to create the best universe, although you would never think it to look at it — if there were a reason for the laws which God gave, then God himself was subject to law, and therefore you do not get any advantage by introducing God as an intermediary. You really have a law outside and anterior to the divine edicts, and God does not serve your purpose, because he is not the ultimate lawgiver.

In short, this whole argument about natural law no longer has anything like the strength that it used to have. I am traveling on in time in my review of the arguments. The arguments that are used for the existence of God change their character as time goes on. They were at first hard intellectual arguments embodying certain quite definite fallacies. As we come to modern times they become less respectable intellectually and more and more affected by a kind of moralizing vagueness.’

– Denonn. L.E., Egner. R.E. Ed. 1961. The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell London, United Kingdom: George Allen & Unwin (1962) p. 587-589

Bertrand Russell delivered the lecture Why I am not a Christian (of which this is an excerpt) on March 6, 1927 to the National Secular Society, South London Branch, at Battersea Town Hall.

On Questioning

“The important thing is not to stop questioning.”

– Albert Einstein


When contemplating the property uncertainty‏, as with knowledge, it turns out to be very difficult to provide an uncontentious analysis. Because of its many different conceptions and dimensions, the full value of uncertainty‏ is surprisingly hard to capture. To that end, below is a list of quotations to help sketch a definition of the property uncertainty‏.

“We demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!”
– Douglas Adams

“Il n’est pas certain que tout soit incertain.”
(It is not certain that everything is uncertain.)
– Blaise Pascal

“The mistake is thinking that there can be an antidote to the uncertainty.”
– David Levithan

“As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.”
– Albert Einstein

“Maturity, one discovers, has everything to do with the acceptance of not knowing.”
– Mark Z. Danielewski

“In these times I don’t, in a manner of speaking, know what I want; perhaps I don’t want what I know and want what I don’t know.”
– Marsilio Ficino

“When in doubt, be ridiculous.”
– Sherwood Smith

“We sail within a vast sphere, ever drifting in uncertainty, driven from end to end.”
– Blaise Pascal

“I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong.”
– Richard Feynman

See more: Approximations

Time Dilation

Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity tells us that gravity is a curve in the fourth dimension of space and time.

What causes the curve is mass. Seriously weighty objects can bend the fabric of space-time. It explains why the planets orbit around the sun. The sun is so incredibly massive it essentially bends the space around it, pulling into orbit lesser objects (like planets) nearby. Similarly, with enough mass an object can even cause an otherwise straight beam of light to curve. In astronomy, that’s called gravitational lensing.

“They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.” ― Andy Warhol

Time is not immune to the effects of gravity either. It passes more quickly the less gravity there is, a phenomenon known as gravitational time dilation. On most days you might not credit gravity with anything more than keeping pigs on the ground (and preventing nature from creating Pink Floyd album cover-like scenes), but a gravitational field can also warp time. That’s gravitational time dilation in a nutshell, and for an example of time dilation in action, we need look no further than the nearest geosynchronous satellite.

Even with ultra-precise atomic clocks, satellites would inevitably wind up a few microseconds fast without correctional programming. This is because massive objects such as suns and planets warp time. Yes, time passes a little slower on Earth than it does in orbit. It would pass even slower on the surface of a Jupiter-sized planet and get slower still near a black hole. NASA even purposely ‘misadjusts’ the clocks before lift-off on space shuttle missions, so that time on the shuttle will sync properly with time down here on Earth at Mission Control.

“Physics isn’t the most important thing. Love is.”
― Richard P. Feynman [Nobel Prize in Physics, 1965]