I love the boy who made my coffee.
I don’t know his name, and I only saw him once in a London café that I’ll probably never be able to find again, but I’ll never forget him.
I don’t remember what he looks like, but I remember what he said to me.
All week before I had encountered him, I was reading about general relativity for a class I’m teaching on the metaphors of physics, and it became clear to me that Intuition can be great, that it can often lead you to optimal paths in life, but what is intuitive about nature is not always true.
Intuition cannot describe reality.
A significant example is what Galileo discovered when he dropped two balls of differing weights off the Tower of Pisa. Everyone thought that the heavier ball would reach the ground first.
It makes sense.
It’s intuitive. If you drop a big, heavy rock and you drop a pencil, intuition tells you that the rock would hit the ground first.
But, of course, intuition is wrong.
They will hit the ground at the same time.
When the first people landed on the moon, they tested this theory with a metal hammer and a feather, because on the moon there would be no wind resistance for the feather, just the gravitational and inertial masses of the object. Sure enough, the hammer and the feather hit the ground at the exact same time.
Here’s a short video of that experiment:
Intuition tells you that if you threw a ball as hard as you could across a field, it would take longer to reach the ground than if you simply opened your hand and dropped it. But they will hit the ground at the same time.
That week in London I was re-reading some of physics texts, and I saw that Newton punked our intuition by equating gravitational mass and inertial mass.
Easy enough, yes?
But I never understood this idea. I barely graduated with my BA, because of the general math requirement.
I basically know (I think) what gravitational mass is, the mass of an object that will cause it to fall from the Tower of Pisa, yes?
If you drop a rock to the ground, it will be attracted to the larger object, the earth. Small bodies are attracted to larger bodies. The earth is attracted to the sun and orbits the sun, not the other way around.
Here’s some disappointing news to poets:
The sun never sets.
There is only the earth making another revolution around the sun.
Many of the metaphors of physics are accessible to lay people, but inertial mass I couldn’t quite grasp.
Until I met the barista I love.
I went in to order a coffee, which as you know in Europe generally means an espresso, and the barista was a young man in his 20s.
I imagine he was hip-looking, maybe an earring, a beard, but I remember watching him pack the coffee powder into the metal cup. He smashed it down and down. Packed it good.
Wow, I said, you’re really making sure that the grounds are packed in there.
Yeah, he said, water is lazy.
Water is lazy. If you don’t pack it in there it’ll just find the easiest way to make it through the grounds, and the cup won’t be as pure.
That’s it! That’s inertia!
In Euclidean geometry a geodesic is the shortest and straightest line between two points. Apparently it gets more complex when you’re talking about non-Euclidean geometry of space-time, but for our purposes, it is basically how a body under the influence of a force will find the easiest way to travel.
Bertrand Russell called this “the law of cosmic laziness.”
The apple falls from the tree, straight down to the ground, because it’s too lazy to take any other route. With the earth spinning and the universe expanding faster than the speed of light, why doesn’t the apple go sideways around the earth or up unto the stars? It would be logical to expect the apple to fall away from the tree, since the earth is moving, but it falls straight down, the easiest path to recover its inertia.
Why doesn’t the apple fall far from the tree?
Because it’s easier and shorter to give in to the earth’s gravitational pull and fall straight down on the head of some poor sap sitting underneath the tree than it is to fly off to a destiny of its own choosing.
All objects, including our bodies, are moving through space-time.
Einstein showed us that there is no such thing as space.
There is no such thing as time.
There is only space-time.
One without the other is impossible.
Space is meaningless without time.
If I said, OK, let’s meet at the big rock in the middle of the field, you would understand me.
But you would probably never find me.
I might go there at midnight, under the light of the moon, whereas you might go at 3 PM, under the blazing sun.
Space without time is meaningless.
And time without space is meaningless.
I’ll be some place in five minutes!] I say. Hope to see you.”\
Great, you say. Where will you be?
There is only space-time, and we are moving through it at more or less a constant velocity.
We have an initial framework, which frames our sense of reality depending on how fast we move through space-time.
If we aren’t moving much through space, like we’re sitting in an armchair with a beer, we are still moving through time at a constant velocity.
That inertia will remain constant unless a force is acted upon us.
Before the apple even falls from the tree, it is moving through space-time at a constant velocity, and now that it is detached from the tree, it doesn’t want to work. It wants to remain at the same velocity.
So it takes the shortest possible path it can.
The easiest path.
The Apple is lazy. And lazy means not wanting to work.
The reason why a heavy object falls at the same time as a lighter object is its resistance to a force acting upon it, that is, the big guy doesn’t want to work anymore than the little guy.
Not to get all Philip Levine on your ass, but let me say What Work Is:
Work happens when a force acts upon mass in such a way that it accelerates it through space-time.
Moving a massive object like a dead body across a floor with force is work.
When I became a college professor, my dad used to tease me. He’d say, “Boy, what you do ain’t real work!”
It wasn’t real work to him, because I wasn’t lifting heavy objects and moving them from one place to another.
But as a writer, I transfer creative energy from my mind to my fingers, which causes them to accelerate and type the words onto my laptop screen, and thus, writing is working.
The heavy sphere would rather say to Galileo, “Please don’t drop me! I don’t want to work. I’m going to resist as much as possible, because I just want to kick up here on the tower with my homies.”
(I should tell of the day I spent in Pisa, at an outdoor café with a view of the Tower, how I ordered a long lunch, three hours, and went through two bottles of wine and then had an espresso. But it would take a lot of work to write about that, so I’m not going to do it just yet.)
The heavier sphere puts up resistance to gravity, the force that wants it to work, and because it’s heavier than the lighter object, it puts up more resistance than then lighter one.
Newtonian physics argues that the more gravitational mass there is to an object, the stronger the inertia, that is, the objects desire to stay at a constant velocity.
Here’s the elegant formula:
(I think. Like I said, I don’t understand the equations, but I get that they are elegant, that they say a lot in pithy language, mathematical haikus.)
When a heavy object falls , it doesn’t want to change velocity, so its inertial mass will resist the fall, and because it’s heavy, its inertial mass is stronger than the light object’s inertial mass.
A lighter object does not have as much resistance, because it’s not as heavy, and the pull of gravity acts on it more effectively. The inertia and the force equal out, and they hit the ground at the same time.
I’m not a scientist, so I write none of this with authority. I’m just trying to understand the basic concept of inertia and gravity. Just for fun.
So when this London barista told me that water is lazy, a light went on in my head.
Of course, you have to pack the coffee in the espresso maker!
Of course you do!
If you didn’t pack it tight, the water would take the easiest path through the grounds.
It would swirl in between the loose coffee grounds, wherever is the least resistance to change.
But if the barista packs it in hard, the water has no choice but to force its way through the ground into my cup, thus making a more pure coffee.
Water is lazy.
But how does this apply to us? How does this apply to the reason why we always end up with jerks?
If a system like physics attempts to describe reality, we should be able to extract the metaphors and apply them to any system’s attempt to describe reality.
Like Blake says, All religions are the same.
A system that describes Reality, Truth, and the Theory of Everything needs metaphor in order to be understood. If those metaphors are close to describing something True, they should describe concepts outside of that metaphorical system.
The Bible teaches, You reap what you sow. The Buddhists might use metaphors around karma. Physicists might say how for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Different metaphors describe the same Truth.
Assume we all have an inertial framework, that is, we move through time and space more or less at a constant velocity, only speeding up when there is a force acting upon us.
We wake up in the morning, have coffee, go to work, feed the kids, whatever it is we do, and we get to the point of inertia where we just repeat what we do over and over again at the same speed. We become comfortable with this.
And this could be the case even psychologically, or mentally, the way we think. Many of us do not think outside of our framework, we do not think outside of the reality that we have accepted.
As you age, one of the ways to lose the agility of your brain is to quit reading, or not to read it all, or not to challenge yourself with new, mental work. We want to stay where we are.
And, here’s the kicker:
If you always end up with jerks, that’s why you always end up with jerks.
If we are used to what we have experienced, whether conscious it or not, whether the apple is aware of it or not, we want to take the easiest path, we want to stay within our inertial framework.
One’s inertial frame work seems to determine one’s sense of reality, including the field in which we live, time and space.
If I am on a train moving through the landscape close to the speed of light, and there are no windows indicating that I am moving and there is no acceleration, my inertial framework tells me I am at rest.
If you were standing on the train station platform watching my train pass, your framework tells you that I am moving very quickly and you are at rest.
Our inertial frameworks provide us with our sense of reality and stability.
If we are at a party, and there are many people in the room, when the door opens and a jerk walks in, our initial framework will attract us to that jerk, because it’s the easiest path. We don’t need to work, we just need to repeat or to stay at a constant velocity where we are emotionally and spiritually.
I’m not talking about the brain, the thought, which will tells us we DON’T want to meet another jerk. The brain is an organ, and although we put a lot of value upon it as humans, it’s still part of our physiology, still under the laws of physics, and sometimes the brain is lazy and helps us to remain inert and tells us, This one will be different.
We keep ending up with jerks because it is the easiest path, it is the psychological geodesic.
We keep repeating the same mistakes, even when we complain about them, even when we feel guilty, or feel worthless, and those feelings of guilt and worthlessness become part of our inertial framework, our reality, and that’s where we will stay, unless there is a force that acts upon us.
We resist anything else. We are like a falling object, the heavier our thoughts and emotions and those things that enslave us, the more we resist the change, the force.
But we are fortunate to be humans, because we have the ability to invite forces into our lives!
We can allow forces us to move away from our inertial framework and to make decisions that are more optimal, to stay away from the jerks.
And many amazing people that I know live their lives like this, writers, teachers, construction workers, all across the world people are using forces to get them to accelerate and deaccelerate.
There are synthetic forces such as drugs, but if we use them too often, they become part of our inertial framework, and we stay there for an even longer time. It takes tremendous force to move someone from an addictive framework.
What forces can we invite into our lives to accelerate us outside of our inertial framework?
To believe in something higher, to seek the ultimate source of energy, the great force, the Crown on the Tree of Life.
Meditation is good.
Exercise is good.
Exercise is using a kinetic force to make us work. It is work in addition to what we need to go about our daily lives. It challenges our inertial framework.
Whether we are conscious of it or not, we invite forces into our lives every day.
There are always things in life that cause us to accelerate or deaccelerate, the death of a family member, the flu, a car accident, a department meeting.
These act on us and cause us to move differently, but the variations can be minimal.
And the more we are stuck within an inertial framework, the more these variations will just become a part of it, the predictable unpredictables of life.
Allow a force to act upon you that takes you out of your comfort zone.
Talk to people you would have never thought of talking to before.
Learn a new language.
Find your force, and let the force be with you.