Hello, Internet! I’ve been inactive lately, partially due to working hard on my senior thesis (which will be posted here as soon as it’s graded) and finishing college (we hope). But, I wrote this story/reflection for a travel writing class, so I’m posting it to hold over my loyal readers until actual posts resume (soon). I hope you enjoy it!
Our universe is constantly expanding. As time goes on, every galaxy, every nebula, every star becomes farther from every other one. There is ever more space separating us.
Just as I was getting used to being in London, where I was studying abroad with my school’s English department, we set off on a weekend trip to Oxford. The horizon wound out in front of our bus, pushing the city skyline into the distance.
When Albert Einstein was 18 years old in 1897, he had completed his first year at the Zurich Polytechnic, studying to become a teacher of physics and mathematics. He’d lived in Ulm, Munich, Milan, Pavia, and Aarau before moving to Zurich for university. After years of spending his spare time building small mechanical devices and performing difficult calculations, he knew that mathematics and physics were his calling. He was good at physics, and he loved it. He’d known all along.
When I was 18 years old in 2012, 115 years later, I was a freshman in college with no major and no clear path. I’d lived in the same house in Chicago all my life, and I hadn’t faced much uncertainty. I was fairly sure that I wanted to be an editor, since reading seemed to be my main talent. When I got to college, though, an introductory physics class had drawn me in. I wasn’t particularly adept at it, but I wanted to learn more. This trip was the end of my first year of schooling, my last deciding moment before I had to declare a field of study, and I was torn.
In 1931, Albert Einstein visited the University of Oxford as a Rhodes lecturer. During his visit, he delivered three lectures on relativity, cosmological theory, and unified field theory. After his second lecture, on cosmological theory, his blackboard was never erased. Instead, it found its way to the Museum of the History of Science.
After a few hours wandering the cold, damp streets of Oxford, I found my way to the Museum of the History of Science, too. Meandering quietly through rows of tarnished astrolabes and sundials, I wondered at the small intricacies which turned these scientific instruments into objects of art. Down an aisle flanked by 17th– and 18th-century telescopes, I spotted my English professor – his wife and children must have gone off to some more child-friendly museum with more activities than artifacts.
“Leah! I’m not surprised to see you here.” I was the only student on the trip with an interest in science; everyone else had two feet firmly in the English department. “You probably know what these are, right?” He gestured expansively.
We meandered up the aisle as I explained how the different lenses worked in refracting telescopes and why reflecting telescopes were shorter and fatter. There are more variants now, and we can see far more of our universe with them, but there is a certain romance in the wood-and-brass telescopes of the past, the handmade presence of them, the idea of spending hours upon hours trying to even find a star in the lens. They had a sense of both literary and scientific romance; perhaps it was the former that had drawn the professor here. As we reached the end of the aisle, we both looked up towards the low ceiling.
There, hanging between two exhibit cases under its own spotlight, was Einstein’s blackboard, equations as bright white as the day they were chalked. For a humble blackboard, it had a surprising air of importance. I found myself standing there in silence, staring up at it with wide eyes. This must be how the professor felt when we visited the Keats House, I thought, when we stayed there so long that Will and I wandered to the café across the road for a leisurely tea. The space between my shoulder blades opened up as my back straightened. I could almost feel my pupils dilating, expanding to see it more clearly.
“So,” he said, snapping me out of my reverie, “what does it mean?” I blinked a few times too many, unsure whether I’d be able to explain, whether I’d even be able to understand. I looked up at the equations, at Einstein’s slanted handwriting. At least I could read them. At least I could try. I knew I had the words, but maybe not the knowledge. My stomach sank as I half-mumbled my incomplete thoughts.
“I think D is the expansion of the universe… And then if p is some variable which defines that… Maybe average distances between things? Something that changes over time for sure, since there’s a time derivative there…”
The professor stared blankly at the blackboard, confused and therefore uninterested in my mumblings, his mind no doubt wandering back to the Keats House as he blinked slowly.
“Well, those last two things look like they’re in light-years and years, so p is definitely a distance, and t is either 10 billion or 100 billion years… Maybe the age of the universe?” Suddenly, it all clicked together. The variables I recognized revealed the unfamiliar ones. I wasn’t sure, but the equations weren’t going anywhere and my mind was facing. Maybe I knew what they were saying. “Okay.” I looked over at Professor Hartman, whose eyebrows lifted at my change in tone. We stood there for ten minutes as I haltingly explained the constant and accelerating expansion of the universe and how that expansion could only be slowed by gravity from matter in the universe. I talked about how Einstein seemed to be working out a simplified determination of how the radius of the universe had changed since the Big Bang. How his results were wrong because they didn’t know about dark energy back then, and how we don’t really know anything about dark energy now except that it makes the universe expand.
For math describing the entire universe and its fate, it was simple. Elegant, even. “Well, I’m glad I ran into you here! I would never have guessed all that.” The professor smiled and absentmindedly turned back to the next aisle of brass astronomical instruments, walking away from the blackboard. I stood there a moment before following.
The whole way back to the hostel, I thought about the blackboard, about Einstein. He’d known his whole life what he wanted to do. He’d struggled through poverty, constant movement across nations and continents, and even a world war, but he had made it through, and his blackboard remained for me to stare at. We were not similar. He’d had a unique talent. I did not – physics wasn’t even the thing I was best at, English was. He’d been fascinated by physics ever since seeing his father’s compass when he was 4. I wasn’t sure if I even was fascinated or if I was just infatuated with the idea of understanding the universe. Einstein had known.
But maybe I knew, too. I opened my laptop and navigated to the major declaration page of my college’s website. I took a deep breath and clicked Physics. “Are you sure?” No. Of course not. But I clicked anyway.
I’ll probably never visit that blackboard again. Oxford is awfully far away, and it’s never going to get closer. But those equations get closer and closer every day.