Einstein's Physics Of Illusion
Copyright © 1980 by John Dobson
This essay was delivered by John Dobson as a lecture at the Vedanta Society,
Berkeley, USA, on 12th October 1980 and has been reprinted from:
The Vedanta Kesari
May, 1988 (pages 181-189)
Some of you may think from the title "Einstein's Physics of Illusion", that I'm going to talk about the
physics which underlies what we think of as magic. That is not what I expect to talk about. Some of you
may think that I suspect that Einstein had some special physics of illusions. If he did, I don't know
anything of it. Instead, what I want to do, with Einstein's help, is to trace our physics all the way back to
square one, and to find out whether, underlying it, there may possibly be something akin to magic.
George Valens has written a charming book called The Attractive Universe.
It is subtitled "Gravity and
the Shape of Space", and on the very first page he says that when a ball is thrown straight up, after a
while it comes to a stop, changes its direction and comes back. He says it looks like magic, and probably
it is. Now what he is taking for granted is that it should have gone off on a straight path without any
change in speed or direction. But you see, that also
would have been the result of magic. We do not
understand in physics why
the ball comes back. But we also
do not understand in our physics why
ball should have continued without any change in the direction of its speed.
Now in the title, and in the remarks that I have made so far, what I mean by magic or illusion is
something like what happens when, in the twilight, you mistake a rope for a snake. And this sort of thing
was analyzed very carefully by some people in North India long, long ago, and they said that when you
make such a mistake there are three aspects to your mistake. First, you must fail to see the rope rightly.
Then, instead of seeing it as a rope, you must see it as something else. And finally, you had to see the
rope in first place or you never would have mistaken it for" a snake. You mistook it for a snake because
the rope was three feet long, and you're accustomed to three foot long snakes.
But before I speak further about illusion, I want to say a few words about what we do
physics, and I also want to point out a few gaps in that understanding. When we talk about the universe,
or when we look out and see it, what we see is that the universe is made out of what we call matter. It's
what we call a material universe. And what we want to do, first of all, is to trace that material back, not
quite to square one, but to square two at least, We want to find out whether we can think of all these
things which we see as being made out of matter, as really
being made out of only a few ingredients.
And the answer is that we can. Long ago the chemists pointed out that all these things that we see are