Making Light of the Matter

Albert Einstein was a clever man. After all, what other type of a fellow could come up with something so bizarre as e=mc2.

This elegant synopsis of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity means that every material object is nothing more than a bundle of energy, in fact an immensely huge amount of energy.
einsteinIf you think about it, it makes no sense. “e”, energy, is what makes things happen. “m”, matter, on the other hand, just sits there. They aren’t the same – they are opposites. Energy is luminous, warm, noisy, and active. Matter is dark, cold, silent, and still.

They say: Theory and practice are the same in theory, but not in practice.

Einstein’s clever idea made sense in theory but not in practice. If you accepted his theory that matter is just a special form of energy, you could explain some lab experiments, but that was about it. Until they made The Bomb, that is. An atomic bomb works because of e=mc2. It can flatten (or power) a city because of the gargantuan quantity of energy that’s released when even a tiny amount of matter is completely annihilated.

Nobody had ever done it before, but after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, people realized the theory had to be taken seriously. Maybe theory and practice could be the same in practice too, even if the idea makes no sense to our human sense of practicality.

There are religious people, Chabad Chassidim for example, who will tell you that living a Torah life is not only true life in the spiritual sense. It is also the most practical thing you could do. Then there are those who would argue, claiming that no, religion may be great for the spirit but if you want to succeed in a material world the practical thing to do is use a materialistic approach.

I may not be an Einstein, but I question that.

But rather than argue matters of spirit, I’d prefer to explore an ongoing debate about the spirit of matter.

Scientists are all about measuring things and it turns out that the most basic thing you can measure about matter is its mass. But what is mass, really? Essentially it’s just a measure of how much matter there is and the standard unit is the kilogram.

space walk

Now you might think that a kilogram is a measure of weight, equal to about 2.2 pounds and you would be right, in practice that is. But there really is more to it than that. For instance, if you were to take 60 kilo man and plunk him on a scale on planet earth, your scale will read 60 kilos. But if you take that same fellow and send him to the moon and put him on a scale over there, the scale would read only 10 kilos because the force of gravity over there is just one sixth of what it is here.

Obviously the mass of the man hasn’t changed, unless he jogged all the way to the moon and lost all those kilos along the weigh. What changed is his weight. To date, this isn’t so relevant in practice. However once space tourism really takes off, so to speak, you too will be able to keep all your kilos while losing all your weight far from earth.

Even now, your weight does change by as much as 0.2% depending on whether you are on top of a high mountain or in a deep canyon.

But weight a minute. If that guy’s 60 kilogram mass weighs in at 60kg here and 10kg on the moon and 0kg in outer space, shouldn’t there be a different unit of measurement for weight than there is for mass? In theory you are correct and that unit is called Newtons. In practice however, nobody cares much. Go try selling a bathroom scale that measures in Newtons.

Theory and practice are the same in theory, but not always in practice.

So far so good. Weight differs depending on the environment, while mass remains constant no matter what. Right? … Wrong! Mass is only constant in theory but practice is something else.

kilogramThat invariable kilogram is in fact shrinking! The standard by which all kilograms have been measured for more than two hundred years is a “prototype” metallic block the last copy of which was made in 1889. These are precisely tooled, platinum alloy cylinders that are kept double sealed in an environmentally controlled basement vault, under triple lock in the offices of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures on the outskirts of Paris.

What scientists have found is that all these prototypes are losing (and sometimes gaining) mass at different rates, a few micrograms here and a few micrograms there, over time. Practically speaking until recent years it has been only of theoretical relevance but as our technologies shrink from milli- to micro- to nano- to pico- and beyond, these tiny variations in standard measures can become significant.

If delicate electronic systems are not calibrated properly, even tiny variations can crash sophisticated technologies. Imagine the impact if control systems for medical devices, aircraft or communications satellites go haywire.

Fortunately scientists have developed accurate, hi-tech solutions for the variable kilogram problem, just as they have for all the other fundamental quantities we use at ever more miniscule measures. Thus we have atomic time, laser distances, and nano-lux where there used to be pendulums, meter sticks, and foot-candles.

At a deeper level, there are lessons to learn here that we can apply to our spiritual life.

The main point is that there is no security in a materialistic outlook. In this world, a massive person can throw his weight around but on the next world he is a lightweight. Higher still, he is weightless. Even mass itself is not a stable quantity and we always need to calibrate to something else. If that something else is also physical, there is no way of knowing what is true.

Another lesson came to me courtesy of Joe Halpern, an old friend who was an IBM think-tank mathematician. At one point he specialized in the calibration of clocks, which is no small matter. In our wired (and wireless) world, lack of accurate multi-point calibration can throw massive networks into chaos.

The key to his research was the role of confirming signals between machines. A by-product of his synchronicity research was the surprising discovery that faith is the underlying principle behind all communication.

It works like this. Imagine two generals teaming up against an enemy army. One signals the other, “We attack at dawn.” The second signals back, “Roger.” Now is General B ready to attack at dawn? Not necessarily. He does not know that General A got his confirming signal. General A then signals, but he does not know that General B got hisconfirmation.

What Halpern went on to prove was, that for every n signals between parties, one can devise a scenario where n+1 confirming signals are required for certainty. In human terms the question is I know that you know. But do you know that I know that you know? And do I know that? And shouldn’t you? Etc., etc.

The lesson here is that faith is not the exclusive domain of the religious. Anyone who communicates with anyone else does so out of simple faith that the other knows what he means, for there is really no proof that he does. In life, we never fully know, but at the frontier of knowledge, there is faith.

Finally there is a remarkable domino effect in the card-house of multidimensional materialism. The kilogram unit is based on the gram. The gram is the mass of a cubic centimeter of water. So mass depends on distance. But what standardizes the measure of a centimeter?

Originally the meter was standardized as one ten thousandth of the distance between the Equator and the North Pole. There was an original meter-long bar of metal in Paris which has since been replaced with a tremendously more accurate and stable measure – the distance traversed by light in 1/299,792,458 of a second.

It is important to note that while mass depends on distance and distance depends on the speed of light, the buck really does stop there. In physical terms, and this is the other great discovery of Einstein, the speed of light in a vacuum is constant. No matter how fast you are going in what direction the speed of light never changes.

torah ohr

The Lubavitcher Rebbe highlighted the point that Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity is based on the speed of light being constant, the one absolute value in a world of relativity. That is because light is a worldly manifestation of Torah, as the verse says, “For the mitzvah is a candle and the Torah is light.”

Not only this, but matter itself is based on light, for in the conversion of matter to energy, the multiplying factor is the speed of light times itself. Since Torah is the analog of light, the message is that the Torah of the spirit factored with the Torah of the physical, creates an immensely powerful energy – a sample of the Or Ein Sof, or Infinite Light that will be manifest in this world with the coming of Moshiach, which will be very soon.

And you don’t need to be an Einstein to realize that.

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