For a while now, I thought I’d understood Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Not in detail, but certainly in broad strokes. I thought I understood the basics and its implications. I understood, for example, that time works differently on objects depending on how fast those objects are traveling. And that is true.
But it wasn’t till I started reading a book by the British writer John Higgs, where he explained Einstein’s theory with a simple analogy involving an astronaut and a red couch that I finally realised how much I didn’t know.
The foundation of Einstein’s theory sits on the idea that there are no fixed points in the universe from which to take measurements from. That for any measurement to be useful, we first need to identify where that measurement is taken from. That is to say, relative to what?
The example John Higgs gave in the book is to imagine that you’re an astronaut in deep space. You’re all alone and everywhere you look is just black. You’re in a void with no stars, no sun, no satellites... not even your spaceship. You're in vantablack.
Now let’s assume that in this scenario, you’re not in any real danger. Let’s assume that you have enough oxygen and nutrition, and that at some point your spaceship will come back and whisk you way. Or maybe you’re not in any real danger because all this is hypothetical.
So imagine that while you’re in this void, you see a big red couch approaching you.
The question is, are you stationary and the red couch is moving towards you? Or is the couch stationary and you’re the one moving?
There’s no way to know for sure.
I’m sure most of us have been in situations where, when we’re stuck in traffic, and the car next to us slowly starts moving, we momentarily think that we’re the ones sliding backwards. But then we notice the other cars and the trees and buildings and the people walking around, and we realise that no, it’s actually the other car that’s moving.
When you’re in the void of space and don’t have any other points of reference, the best you can do is to say that relative to the couch, you’re moving. And relative to you, the couch is moving.
Neither of those choices is wrong.
Recently, I was thinking about language, and I realised that in a lot of ways, language is also built on a form of relativity.
Whenever two people communicate, and one of them says a word, the two of them need to have the same understanding of that word -- a common point of reference -- for communication to happen. And if those two people don’t share the same point of reference, then they must first find a shared point, and then work from there to establish a new reference. It’s a form of translation. From one context to another.
One thing that comes to my mind right now is the word “thirst”. It could mean thirsty, as in a desire for hydration. But it could mean thirsty -- as in thirst trap -- which is a kind of desperation.
Of course “thirst” doesn’t exactly mean desperation, but like all translation, it’s a kind of approximation. And when an approximation is useful, we call it communication.
I was born on the third day of Ramadan in 1409 on the Hijri calendar. A couple of years ago during Ramadan, I told this fact to a friend of mine, and my friend looked very confused.
“So does that mean that your birthday keeps changing every year?” he asked.
Obviously, my birthday does not change every year, because my birthday falls on the third of Ramadan every year.
But I understood what he was asking. His reference point was the Gregorian calendar, and on the Gregorian calendar, my birthday does move every year by about eleven days. But from the perspective of the Hijri calendar, it’s his Gregorian calendar that keeps moving.
He’s the astronaut, and I’m the couch. Or maybe he’s the couch and I’m the astronaut.
To communicate complex ideas, we must first establish common points of reference. And the more globalised the world becomes, the harder that is becoming.
But if we are able to communicate at all, then it means that we already have at least some common reference points. What we need to do then is start from there. Sometimes it’s as simple as having someone else shift their reference points to another’s.
“You’re right, my birthday does move every year on the Gregorian calendar, because the Hijri calendar is lunar.”
Other times, it means breaking whatever ideas we need to communicate into smaller ideas, and then using our common reference points to map those ideas onto common points.
“You see, the lack of attention is a kind of dehydration. Which is why desperation is a kind of thirst.”
I remember once seeing this quote on Instagram written in Estonian. I couldn’t figure out what it said because I don’t read Estonian, but at the bottom, the quote was attributed to Stephen Hawking.
My immediate reaction was, no. This can’t be accurate because Stephen Hawking was English, so everything he ever wrote or said, he said in English. Which goes to say – at least in my head – that he very clearly didn’t say this Estonian thing.
It took me longer than I'm willing to admit to realise that whenever I quote Marcus Aurelius, or Prophet Muhammad, or Lao Tzu, I’m really just quoting someone else’s best attempt at translating the things they said.
The default, for most of us, is to think that the couch is moving towards us. To have ourselves be the fixed point of reference.
But to communicate effectively, we’ll need to be adaptable. We’ll need to be able to move reference points relative to the contexts and people we are attempting to communicate with. We need to be good at translation. Because even though translation is an approximation, if it successfully connects us to a common point of reference, it’s also communication.