Author: Thomas Levenson edited by Corey S Powell
Albert Einstein understood the power of science and scientific metaphors, and their ability to provide perspective on everyday experiences. Here is his oft-retold description of his best-known idea: ‘When you sit with a nice girl, an hour seems like a minute. When you sit on a hot stove, a minute seems like an hour. That’s relativity.’ The joke hardly captures the precise physics involved, but it brings home the reality that our experience of time is malleable. Particularly relevant today, his explanatory approach offers a lesson to journalists struggling to cover complicated topics in a polarised media world. Thinking like Einstein – thinking relativistically – can help to decode stories on topics as far removed from science as power, love or money.
Einstein’s relativity was born in 1905, often called his ‘miracle year’. The paper in which he lays out the theory is a rarity within the scientific literature, clear and citation-free. Some of Einstein’s celebrated thought experiments are there to help the reader grasp the deep ideas within the paper’s seeming simplicity. The most famous of these concerns his shocking redefinition of the idea of simultaneity. Einstein breaks down the old conception and introduces a new one, using the scenario of a train being struck by lightning, observed both on board and from track-side. From the start, he connected his relativistic thinking to the familiar world.
But there’s another important thought problem in Einstein’s paper, one that is mostly overlooked. It focuses on an oddity in the way that physics was understood at the time. Scientists knew well that if a magnet and a wire coil (or any conductor) move with respect to each other, a current flows through the wire. But Einstein noted that, in turn-of-the-century theory, the description of the event differed depending on whether the magnet moved and the coil remained at rest, or the coil moved and the magnet stayed. That duality, Einstein realised, shouldn’t be. Either way, the relative motion was the same, and the outcome was also the same – yet the way in which physicists grappled with the events was different. Einstein deduced that his colleagues were missing the broader, unifying context.
There is a direct correspondence between Einstein’s emphasis on the need to come up with a consistent picture of an event as seen by any observer (in this case, from the coil’s perspective and the magnet’s) and a critical demand for journalistic rigour. For example, consider the ruling made by President Barack Obama’s administration this May that made more than 4 million workers eligible for paid overtime if they work more than 40 hours a week. Peter O’Dowd, in a piece for the National Public Radio programme Here and Now, told listeners that the workers had just received ‘a raise’. Many other journalists offered the same interpretation. In one sense, that’s true: people earning overtime will take home more money than those who don’t. But it could also be said that there was no raise at all. A newly overtime-eligible employee receives the exact same base salary rate as before, but will now get paid for all the hours worked.
Here are two distinct and yet internally consistent descriptions of the same event. For a supervisor, spending more on wages feels like a raise. To subordinates, getting paid for all of their time on the job is just getting back to level. So how can a reporter get the story right? Think like Einstein, this time accounting for the categories of boss and worker instead of coil and magnet.
The special theory of relativity gives the physicist a tool that allows her to reconcile different descriptions of the same event. Einstein’s answer in his 1905 paper turns on the concept of reference frames, the coordinates and clock ticks that mark where and when each observer views a given event. Observers in separate reference frames that are in constant motion with respect to each other (the coil or the magnet, the train passenger or someone watching from the embankment) will make different measurements of the same event. In the latter half of the paper, Einstein supplies the mathematical framework that connects those two views, but even the conceptual version is enormously powerful. Relativity is a misleading name, one that Einstein himself didn’t love; the key to special relativity is that it reconciles the differing, ‘relative’ interpretations of a single, invariant event.
Moving from physics to daily life: here, again, special relativity accepts the critical importance of point of view, the way observers interpret what they’ve just seen. At the same time, it affirms the unique reality of the event being observed. For a journalist, that sense of a formal relationship between interpretation – even spin – and the underlying event or action is vital. Relativistic thinking is especially helpful in any area that has accumulated a dominant narrative frame. The economics beat, for instance, naturally lends itself to the corporate perspective. Relativisitic journalism would help to ensure that no story about a change in employment rules talked only about raises and not about work hours.
There is no mathematical transformation that can precisely align the boss’s view with that of her workers, but the idea of reference frames maps directly from physics on to the shop floor. It does so, too, for many other stories that hinge on disparities of power. It helps journalists to hear the silent ‘…as much as everyone else’s’, after the slogan ‘Black Lives Matter’, and hew more closely to Einstein’s own generous views on racial equality. It sharpens the reporting of medical stories; in the recent debate over different countries’ mammogram frequency recommendations, for instance, it clarifies that the issue is at least as much about communicating risk as it is about performing accurate diagnostics. Frames of reference certainly impinge on stories about politics and policy.
To be clear, I am not calling for mere ‘both-sides’ journalism. We already have too much of that. Not every fact has two distinct, equivalent meanings. Human-driven global warming and disease-reduction from vaccination are real, and the complaints of a handful of dissenters doesn’t alter that reality. But many more stories exist in which a commitment to one perspective blinds the reporter – and the audience – to the alternatives. Not every reporter can be as smart as Einstein. But it is possible, and a damn good idea, to think at least a little bit like him.
Thomas Levenson is is professor of science writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His most recent book is The Hunt for Vulcan: … And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe (2015). He lives in Massachusetts.