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Falling: How To Meet Einstein In An Elevator

Jul 2, 2013
Originally published on July 4, 2013 9:58 pm

This is the third installment in Adam Frank's series "How To See The Universe In A Grain Of Sand", looking for the extraordinary in the ordinary.


From the day we are born to the day we die, it's always there. Never changing, never wavering, it holds us down and binds us to the Earth. We live under the tyranny of gravity and its constancy bears down on our spirits, allowing us to fly only in our dreams. But what if gravity was less the tyrant than we suppose? What if we could, if even for a minute, feel it become unhinged and, in that moment, come to see a deeper truth about the cosmos itself. Well we can have that moment and it can come to us, as it did for Einstein, in the most unlikely of places: an ordinary, everyday elevator.

Isaac Newton and his apple is a familiar story to most folks. The apple was, supposedly, the seed of Newton's insight into gravity as a force, a force that reaches out and pulls one object toward another. And intuitively, that's how we all understand gravity. It is a force relentlessly pulling us down, keeping our butts in our chairs and our feet on the ground.

Einstein, however, saw deeper into the Universe around us and you can too. All you have to do is take an elevator ride and pay very, very close attention.

When you first step into an elevator your legs bear the same weight as when you waited for the doors to open. But press the button for an upper floor and, for an instant, something wonderful, something magical happens. Your legs buckle. For a brief instant it feels as if your weight increases. In other words, it feels as if gravity gets a little bit stronger. Then the moment passes and you begin cruising upwards. But just as your reach your floor it happens again, only this time you feel yourself rise up just a bit. Your weight changes once more, as gravity momentarily seems to weaken.

There! You have just experienced variable gravity.

When Einstein looked at those little gravity jolts, he saw into the very heart of the cosmos. They were the key to his "ah-ha" moment. He realized that gravity isn't about forces, it's about falling.

Gravity, Einstein saw, is what happens when you take away forces and let things go with the flow — the flow of space. Cut the cables on your elevator and what happens (other than a lot of yelling and panic)? Inside, everything appears to go weightless. During the fall you'd float like an astronaut in a space capsule.

That was how Einstein realized that apples don't fall because of forces; they fall because that is what space wants them to do. Gravity is space bending and stretching like taffy. Even though you can never touch space you can see it has a shape just by watching how things fall.

So the variable gravity you feel in the elevator ... that's just one way of getting past old Newton and his force idea. Sometimes I need to remind myself of this. So I always carry a little red ball with me. When I'm in an elevator and the doors slide shut I start tossing it into the air hoping to witness the elusive moment of the elevator's brief acceleration. Get it right and, just as my legs buckle, the ball begins its rise upward and then hangs for a moment in the air before it starts rising up again. It's always a heart-stopping moment as, for an instant, I see gravity vary and see a hint of the bending space around me.

When I catch that brief moment of wonder, the elevator becomes a portal, allowing me to see past the small details of the everyday to the grand universe that is always and forever right there before us.


You can keep up with more of what Adam Frank is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @AdamFrank4

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Commentator and NPR blogger Adam Frank is an astrophysicist on a quest to help you find your inner scientist. He says you can find the extraordinary in the ordinary. For instance, you, too, can overcome the tyranny of gravity. Just hop on an elevator.

ADAM FRANK, BYLINE: The story of Isaac Newton and his apple is familiar to most folks. The apple was supposedly the seed of Newton's insight that gravity is a force, a force that reaches out and pulls one object towards another. And intuitively, that's how we all understand gravity. It's a force relentlessly pulling us down, keeping our butts in our chairs and our feet on the ground. Albert Einstein, however, saw deeper into the universe around us, and you can too. All you have to do is take an elevator ride and pay very close attention.

When you first step into an elevator, your legs bear the same weight as when you waited for the doors to open. But press the button for an upper floor and for an instant, something wonderful, something magical happens, your legs buckle. For a brief instant, it feels as if your weight increases. In other words, it feels as if gravity gets a little bit stronger. Then the moment passes as you continue cruising upwards. But just as you reach your floor, it happens again, only this time you feel yourself rise up just a bit. Your weight changes once more as gravity momentarily seems to weaken. There. You have just experienced variable gravity.

Now, when Einstein looked at those little gravity jolts, he saw into the very heart of the cosmos. They were the key for his aha moment that gravity isn't about forces at all. It's about falling. Gravity, Einstein saw, is what happens when you take away forces and let things go with the flow - the flow of space. Now, snap those cables on your elevator and what happens, other than a lot of yelling and panic. Inside, everything appears to go weightless. During a fall, you'd float like an astronaut in a space capsule. And that was how Einstein realized that apples don't fall because of forces. They fall because that's what space wants them to do.

Gravity is space bending and stretching like taffy. And even though you can never touch space, you can see that it has a shape by watching how things fall. So the variable gravity you feel in the elevator, that's just one way of getting past old Newton and his force. Sometimes, I need to remind myself of this so I like to carry a little red ball with me. When I'm in an elevator and the doors slide shut, I start tossing the ball into the air hoping to witness that elusive moment of the elevator's brief acceleration.

If I get it right then, just as my legs buckle, the ball begins to rise up, then hangs for a moment in the air and then starts rising again. It's always a heart-stopping moment as if for an instant I see gravity vary and get a hint of the bending space around me. And when I experience that moment of wonder, the elevator becomes a portal, allowing me to see past the day-to-day details to the grand universe all around us.

CORNISH: That was NPR blogger Adam Frank. He teaches at the University of Rochester. All this year, he's exploring new ways of appreciating the science in our everyday lives. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.