The Space in Between

Myths form the first iteration of science, attempting to explain the world around them in terms of gods and monsters. Men and women of the ancient world believed that the sun, the sky, and all natural phenomenon were moved by the forces of these supernatural beings, spiteful goddesses and vengeful nymphs, turning their observations of the natural world into stories that gratified and entertained. As science progressed beyond myth, it began to explain the machinery of the world via reproducible experiments and data, instead of stories; however, scientific discoveries and theories continue to possess the same powerful sway over our emotions that these myths did in the ancient world. Every time a new discovery is made, like the rotation of our spherical Earth around the sun or the shockingly young age of our planet compared to the universe as a whole, another veil in our understanding has fallen, an emotional experience altering our perception of the world around us. Newton, Darwin, Gauss, Kant, Curie-all these scientists chipped away at our understanding of the world and gave us some clarity on the rules of the universe. All valuable contributions, yet all these pale to the unequaled leap forward in scientific understanding that was Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.

Let me summarize the idea. Isaac Newton formed the fundamentals of physics when he theorized that a force of gravity exists between all bodies. In Newton’s model, space existed solely for shapes to move through when a force directed them to; the universe was a huge, empty box with objects traveling in straight lines unless diverted by a force. No one, not even Newton, could explain what made up the space between objects, or how forces originated, until the discoveries by James Maxwell and Michael Faraday. They discovered the electromagnetic field, a real entity that exists everywhere and carries radio waves, fills space, and transports electromagnetic waves. However, their theories challenged Newton’s, since they implied that a similar “gravitational field” existed to create the forces of gravity between bodies. Einstein labored to understand how Newton’s gravity played into Maxwell and Faraday’s theories, until he made the stunning revelation that perhaps space itself is the gravitational field from which force stems. This was a moment of enlightenment. Instead of the empty box pictured by Newton, Einstein transformed our world into a malleable amorphous shell, constantly warping and twisting around itself. Space curves where there is matter. The sun warps the space around it, and that curvature causes the motion of the planets around it. Furthermore, time itself curves around matter, allowing the universe itself to expand and contract in an inexorable march towards expansion.

We tend to look at things as the defining characteristics of the world around us. Things have substance and weight, and they can carry out actions that allow us to focus our attention on them, while we define space simply as anything that is not a thing. From the confines of his grad student apartments, Einstein created a world that shatters that perspective, a world sprung from mathematical theory and solidified into being by countless verifiable experiments in the years since. The spaces between things holds the power to curve time and space, to shape the fabric of our reality and the nature of our world. There are things we cannot see with our own eye that shape our every waking moment. These are the spaces and the moments that create our world.

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