Navigation Menu+

What If?

Posted on Feb 11, 2007 by

In his most recent book, Fabric of the Cosmos, Brian Greene, a physicist with a particular gift for translating physics into plain language, tells about a game he used to play with his father, walking through the streets of Manhattan.  It’s a game that may have uniquely prepared him to be a physicist, a game that involves shifting perspective.  It’s also, I think, a potentially wonderful game for a writer—or for someone who is interested in looking at something—anything—in a new way.  It’s like playing “I Spy”, but with a twist.  In this game Brian Greene or his father would spy an object on the street, describe it from an unusual perspective, and then the other one had to figure out what was being described.  For example, this from Greene’s book:  “‘I’m walking on a dark, cylindrical surface surrounded by low, textured walls, and an unruly bunch of thick white tendrils is descending from the sky.’”

The answer?
An ant walking on a hot dog while a street vendor is dressing it with sauerkraut.

You can probably think of other examples.

Here’s one: I am repeatedly diving into a hard invisible barrier while an enormous four-legged white creature chases after me and makes high-pitched sounds.
(That’s a fly at the window while our dog—a whippet—tries to catch it.)

Greene says this game did two things for him.  It not only stretched his brain to consider different viewpoints.  But it also led him to consider each of these viewpoints as potentially valid.

Here’s another example: an ant resting on an ice-skater’s boot.  To a spectator in the stands, it appears as if the ice skater, along with her boot, is spinning.  But what about to the ant?  And which point of view is more valid in regards to absolute space?

This is the kind of question that can give me a bit of a headache.  It’s also the kind of question—having to do with motion and relative motion and absolute space—that physicists wrestled with in the early part of the twentieth century.  And the key to beginning to resolve this kind of question, according to Greene, had everything to do with being able to ask a new question: what if?  What if the way we’re looking at things now is not the only way to look?  What if we look at things from a different perspective?  And what if this new perspective is potentially valid?

I’d never thought about it in quite this way before, but this, Greene says, is what Einstein did.  Einstein asked, What if?  And he came up, among other things, with the special theory of relativity, which says, according to Greene, that space and time are “in the eyes of the beholder.” Einstein didn’t so much answer the pressing physical questions of his time, Greene says.  He reframed them.  And Greene describes reframing like this.  p. 39:

Some discoveries provide answers to questions.  Other discoveries are so deep that they cast questions in a whole new light, showing that previous mysteries were misperceived through lack of knowledge.  You could spend a lifetime—in antiquity, some did—wondering what happens when you reach earth’s edge, or trying to figure out who or what lives on the earth’s underbelly.  But when you learn that the earth is round, you see that the previous mysteries are not solved; instead they’re rendered irrelevant.

But when you learn that the earth is round, you see that the previous mysteries are not solved; instead they’re rendered irrelevant.

I have this inkling that sometimes, for some people, healing is like that.