Albert and I worked together on a project near Walden Pond in north-central Massachusetts. We were hired by a developer to help with chopping Mary Todd Lincoln’s (Abe’s wife) family farm into what was intended to become a subdivision and bedroom community for Boston.
Al was a skinny 17-year-old kid from Indiana with unmanageable hair who was already a graduate student at MIT. I was 25 and somewhat addicted to party life with double shots of Jim Beam and a beer back. I was the chain saw operator, hacking the road right-of-way through old-growth hardwoods that Mary Todd climbed as a little girl. We didn’t have a chipper truck. Al piled the slash in clearings to be burned in the fall.
During our first lunch together, I asked Albert what he studied. His doctoral thesis involved mathematically mutating a basketball into a donut without piercing the skin and producing a set of formulae that would predict the motion of an ice cube when dropped into a hot skillet.
What had he been thinking about while he was dragging brush? He squinted at his chocolate milk carton and said he spent the morning determining that all humans on the planet would fit in a 2-cubic-mile box, which, if dropped into the Mariana Trench, would have less than a millimeter’s impact on sea level. Cheery stuff. In an effort to change the subject, I asked about his family background.
Al’s father was an Italian immigrant from southern Italy, a student of Tesla’s electromagnetic theories, who worked through the 1940s as a technician in the Princeton University laboratories during Albert Einstein’s tenure there. He told bedtime stories about how spacy Einstein was, how the great physicist had a seat at one end of the net on the Princeton tennis court and giggled while playing his violin to tennis players. Al’s dad named his first son after Einstein.
I confessed my ignorance of all things Einsteinian, including the theory of relativity, figuring Little Albert would probably have a handle on some of it. Just then a duck flew past, headed for Walden Pond, and Albert launched into a synthesis between hunting ducks and applying Einstein’s theories. Here is what I remember of the lesson:
Einstein believed that the measurements of length, time, motion, and mass are not absolute, but depend on the relative velocity of the observer. If a hunter is standing in a duck blind and trying to kill a duck that is flying past, the hunter must lead the duck, shoot in front of it, so the shotgun pellets and the duck arrive at the same place at the same time. If the hunter is moving faster than the duck, from the back of a jet for instance, the hunter must shoot behind the duck.
A single shotgun pellet, sitting on a duck’s head, will probably not kill a duck, but if we grant the pellet the correct amount of velocity relative to the duck’s head, the pellet picks up energy, and, in some sense, mass, so that at enough velocity the pellet-duck collision is fatal, usually to the duck.
Not everything is relative in Einstein’s duck blind. We need an absolute for the purpose of measuring relative degrees of relativity. The speed of light remains constant and independent of the motion of the observer. If a duck is flying toward us at half the speed of light, with a flashlight taped to its beak, the light from the flashlight is still only going 186,282 miles per second. If the duck is flying away from us and shines the beam back, the light is traveling 186,282 miles per second.
Al wadded up the waxed paper from his peanut butter and banana sandwich and missed the entire bed of the pickup truck with his toss. Without factoring in gravity, which even Einstein did not have a good handle on, Einstein’s theory of relativity eventually led to his formula, E=MC2, stating that energy equals mass times the speed of light squared, which led to nuclear energy. Double duh.
Late that fall, after I had schooled Al about motorcycles and drugs and the smell of women, after the first snows fell, we torched the brush piles. Three of the largest were stacked on an ancient peat bog. The fires burned down into underground seams of peat that promised to smolder for years, leaving much of the Todd estate relatively unfit for human housing.