Today we celebrate the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s General Relativity Theory and I am happy to contribute the following anecdote from my past. Einstein was a big deal for getting my early nerd on. Now I can finally tell the tale without fear of being shamed: nerds are also celebrated these days.
My very last class as an undergrad was working through the math for Einstein’s field eequation, that link gravity and mass and space time. For those of you interested, it looks like this:
Now, reading this explanation doesn’t really help me much, and I am sure most of you are just as lost as I am now in trying to get deeper into the actual variables that are part of this calculation. It actually depresses me somewhat, knowing that I spent weeks studying tensor calculus and differential geometry to decode this thing. At the time, I remember thinking that I actually understood what was going on. Remember it took Einstein several years to come up with his theories of relatively.
This actually is the second time in about a month where I realized that I have forgotten more mathematics than I have learned, which I guess is part and parcel to growing old. Earlier, I spent some time with my daughter and her fiance, who is taking a class in mathematical economics. As he showed me some of the equations that he is trying to figure out, I realized that I took several classes as an undergrad and at one time actually knew what they meant. Now they were just as impenetrable as Einstein’s equations. It was a frustrating experience for both of us. But then, it isn’t like I have had to use this stuff in any capacity in my daily life for decades.
I don’t want to give you the impression that I didn’t have a very good education — quite the contrary. It was an important experience that shaped so much of what I ended up doing, even if I can’t do the math any longer. I was a very lucky undergraduate at Union College, a small school in upstate New York. First, I had some terrific professors who guided my learning and put up with me in general. Second, the school at the time had a very liberal independent study policy that I was able to take advantage of. Eventually, I would take an entire year’s worth of independent classes, which taught me self-study and research that would serve me well as a tech journalist. And being a small school I was able to mix and mingle and dabble in non-mathematical classes and meet non-nerds too. Finally, I even had a very geeky part-time job, rebuilding a series of antique geometric string models that the college owned: that taught me a love of mathematical modeling before we had PCs, built-in pivot tables in Excel, or ways to write math in print, such as with TeX and MathML.
But anyway, it is nice to see all the posts (including a very nice NYTimes article) on the topic. And for those of you that can do the above math, kudos to you!