From the Sublime to the Ridiculous

by Ira Mark Egdall

If you happened to be on Hollywood Beach in Florida the other day, you may have come across a wild-looking man with flying white hair, a white mustache, an old-fashioned pipe dangling from his mouth, a tie with E=mc2 on it, and a sign on his back saying: PLEASE TAKE THE EINSTEIN SURVEY – FOUR EASY QUESTIONS. No it was not Mark Twain. That was me dressed up as Albert Einstein.

Ya see, I’m writing a popular science book on Einstein’s sublime theories. In it I try to explain his great ideas in everyday language, so the average person can truly understand them. Ever wondered how he came up with his theories of relativity? If your answer is yes, then this is the book for you.

Anyway, it turns out that it’s real hard to get a non-fiction book published these days unless you are somebody famous. You know, like Sarah Palin or some other great American icon like Paris Hilton or Snookie from Jersey Shore. Have you ever heard of a nerd named Mark Egdall who thinks relativity is cool? Didn’t think so.

So I get the bright idea to make up a survey. If I can get say 1000 responses, maybe I can convince a publisher that there is a market for my book. I keep it to a few simple questions. Like how much you know about Einstein’s theories and whether you would be interested in a book like mine. Hey, I figure there must be lots of people out there who are fascinated by this stuff, just like me. (I’m a dreamer.)

When I retired, I moved to beautiful South Florida and settled in Hollywood. I loved the informal atmosphere and especially family-oriented, quirky Hollywood Beach. I also got to fulfill a lifelong dream — to teach. I do this at Lifelong Learning Institutes. And I love it.

What’s a Lifelong Learning Institute? It’s a place where people age 50 plus can take personal enrichment courses like mine. Attendance is voluntary for these non-credit courses — so I am surprised when people actually show up for my classes, and even more surprised when they continue to show up!

I had difficulty finding the right book on Einstein’s theories for my students, so I decided to write my own book on relativity. One that is comprehensive, entertaining, and most of all, understandable. I’m almost done. It’s a lot harder than I thought. But trying to get it published – well that’s the really hard part. So I concocted the survey.

I decide to take the crazy route. “I think I’ll buy a wig and mustache and dress up as Einstein,” I tell my dear wife Pat. She gives me that look only a married man knows — a combination of oh my God I actually married this fool and deep sympathy for the mentally deranged.

So here I am trying to look like Einstein, walking down Hayes Street to the beach, and feeling ridiculous. I wonder if Stephen Hawking had to dress up like Isaac Newton to get his first book published? Nah. He was already famous. And much, much, much, much smarter than me. (Not enough muches.)

Pat tags along, walking behind me. It’s not deference to my exalted position — she just doesn’t want to be seen with me. Still she feels the need to maintain a protective eye — me in my delicate condition. I pass the dog at the cycle rental shop. No reaction. So far so good.

I’m on the broadwalk. Hey people are smiling. Most walk by with bemused looks on their faces. Then someone comes up to me. “Can I take the survey,” she asks. My first customer. Despite the tickle from the mustache and the heat from the wig, I am beginning to feel comfortable. A former chemistry teacher takes the survey. A few tell me they are writing their own book. Someone says his grandmother was a cousin to Albert Einstein’s first wife Mileva Marić. Some guy tries to sell me an “original” photo of Albert Einstein at the Grand Canyon for the bargain price of only $15,000. Another says his son is an engineer and would love a book like mine. Hey, hey, hey (with apologies to Fat Albert), I’m getting into the swing. Even Pat is now making eye contact with me.

So if you see me on the beach, humor me — wave and say hello. If you care to, take my survey. Four easy questions. And tell me your story. There’s a million of them.

Interested in my book? Please go to and take the Einstein survey.

(The above article appeared in the Spring 2011 Hollywood Cahoots Quarterly newspaper.)

Just a Theory

By Ira Mark Egdall

My cousin sent me this quote from a religious site and asked me what I thought of it:

“Gravity is a theory, not a proven fact.

“The effects of gravity can be explained by other theories. An example would be the acceleration theory which asserts the earth is actually moving ‘upward’ at a constant rate of 1g (9.8m/sec^2). This produces the same effect as ‘gravity’.

“See there are different theories for the same phenomena – and none are facts, they are just theories.”

Oh boy. There is such misunderstanding on what a theory is and is not. First of all, a theory in physics is a “model” using mathematics to try to describe physical behavior. And no scientific theory is “proven”. You would have to test it against all possible scenarios, which are infinite in number. All you can do is rate the usefulness of a theory — how well its predictions agree with measurements and observations. The theory of gravity (here I assume they are talking about general relativity) is considered superb in its usefulness. Volumes of empirical data from a number of independent sources confirm its predictions to extraordinary accuracy.

As someone said; to say “it is just a theory” is like saying it is just science.

Per Einstein’s Equivalent Principle, acceleration produces the same physical effects as gravity. This is no doubt the source of the argument above. But the Equivalence Principle (EP) does not tell the whole story. A quick summary: the EP only takes into account the warping of time by a mass/energy. But mass/energy also warps space. So the effects of gravity and acceleration are not truly equivalent. Thus an accelerating Earth at 1g would not produce the exact same effects as gravity. Obviously, the writer has read some popularizations, but does not know the subtleties of the physics. (The Devil is in the details).

I didn’t know any of this until I did the detailed research for my book on Einstein and relativity. Sorry for the rant, but the quote above got me all excited. And these days, I get my thrills wherever I can find them.

Note: I read about rating the usefulness of physics theories in Roger Penrose’s book The Emperor’s New Mind, Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics, p. 152-155.

Time Travel II – Forward and Backward in Time

Time Travel – We Do it All the Time! Part II
By Ira Mark Egdall

One of Albert Einstein’s most mind-boggling predictions is that gravity slows down time. This so-called gravitational time dilation comes directly from his theory of general relativity. How does it work? Raise your arm up high so that your wristwatch is up over your head. Now take that same watch and hold it close to the ground. (Ignore those people giving you funny looks; what do they know?) Per Einstein, your watch runs slower nearer to the source of the gravity — in this case, the Earth.

You see the closer you get to the Earth (lower altitude) the slower time runs. And the farther away from Earth (higher altitude) the faster time runs. This effect is extremely tiny here on Earth. That’s why we don’t notice it. But it is real!

How do we know? Physicists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) recently used two super-accurate aluminum ion clocks to test Einstein’s wild idea. They placed one clock about 6 inches above the other. The lower clock indeed ran a tiny bit slower than the higher clock; and in just the amount predicted by Einstein’s formula! This came as no surprise to scientists. All previous tests (e.g. atomic clocks on satellites, rockets, airplanes, mountains, and at sea level) showed the same effect — the closer you get to the surface of the Earth, the slower time runs.

What does this have to do with time travel? It means we can (and do) travel forward and backwards through time. And we don’t have to climb into some imaginary time machine to do it — we just need to change altitude.

The Twins Paradox and Gravity:

To get a feel for how this works, imagine a fictitious super-massive, super-dense stellar object called Neutronium. On its surface is a mountain of great height called Mount Neutron. Now gravity on the surface of Neutronium is much stronger than gravity on the mountain top. So much so that time on the surface runs twice as slow as time on Mount Neutron. In other words, for every year that goes by on the surface of Neutronium; two years go by on the mountain top.

Say twins are born on the surface and separated at birth. One is immediately sent to live on the top of Mount Neutron. Let’s call her Tina Top. We’ll call the remaining twin Sammy Surface.

On her 30th birthday, Tina Top decides to leave Mount Neutron and visit her twin brother on the surface. But when she arrives down below, Sammy Surface is only 15 years old. After all, time for Sammy has run at only half the rate of time for Tina on top of that mountain.

Say the twins were born in the surface year 2000. Tina Top returns to Sammy in the surface year 2015. But 30 years have gone by for Tina. To her, it should be the year 2030, but it is only the year 2015 here on the surface. Do you see it? Tina Top has effectively traveled 15 years into the past.

Now say after visiting Sammy Surface, Tina Top immediately returns to Mount Neutron. Then on his 30th birthday, Sammy Surface travels to Mount Neutron to visit his twin sister. When he meets Tina, she is now 60 years old. In fact, everything on the mountain-top has aged 60 years since they were born.

Sammy spent 30 years on the surface, but it is now 60 years later on Mount Neutron. Sammy Surface has traveled 30 years into the future!

Everyday Time Travel with Gravity:

Time on the surface of the Earth runs some 0.02 seconds per year (2 seconds per century) slower than time in the zero gravity of outer space. The effect is so small here because Earth’s gravity is so relatively weak. But we still experience time travel whenever we change altitude.

I live in a two-story house and my bedroom is upstairs. Gravitational time dilation makes the alarm clock in my upstairs bedroom run a very tiny bit faster than the wall clock in my downstairs kitchen. (Assuming identically accurate clocks.) This effect has nothing to do with the clocks themselves. If I switch clocks, gravitational time dilation still makes the upstairs clock run faster than the one downstairs.

It is time itself which is running faster upstairs, because gravity is weaker there than downstairs. All night long, as I sleep upstairs, all aspects of time are moving ever so slightly faster than time downstairs. For example, my heart beat at rest (all other things being equal) is a tiny bit faster upstairs than down. I am aging a tiny bit faster upstairs. When I come down to breakfast in the morning, I am in effect traveling into the past (by a miniscule amount). Similarly, if I spend my day at ground–level, when I return to my upstairs bedroom at night I am traveling a miniscule amount into the future.

So gravitational time travel is real. We do it all the time. Into the future and into the past. If we wore accurate enough watches, we wouldn’t need to read about this effect. Time travel with altitude would be an accepted gravitational effect, just like the proverbial apple falling from the tree.

This article is based on a book I am writing which explains relativity in everyday language. For more details go to: