Tag Archives: education

How We Learn #4 – It’s All Relative and What is Possible?


Albert Einstein was a poor student. He disliked school and was expelled at age 16. Some of his teachers thought that he was retarded. Today, no one remembers those teachers’ names whereas the name Einstein has become synonymous with genius.

Einstein gave us the concept of relativity. Simply put that means that the position and state of motion of the observer determines how he experiences space and time.

A clock sent into space returns to earth having run much slower than a grounded clock. This has implications for inventions like GPS satellites. Before we can use and rely on them, they have to be adjusted to reflect accurate time.

This is how I explain relativity to myself…From my window, I see a tall monkey tree with many interlacing branches. From where I stand, two branches are intertwined and seem to form a perfect heart shape. But when I stand on the sidewalk at ground level and look at that tree there is no heart shape anywhere.

Einstein liked to use trains to illustrate his ideas. If you are running alongside a train at the same speed as the train, you feel that you are running on the same spot. Or if two parallel trains are at the station and one of them starts to move, a person in the other train would feel as if his train was going backwards.

But enough of trains. We are bipeds and stand erect and see the world from that position. If we are high in the sky on a plane, we have a totally different perception. And the perspective changes dramatically when we are flat on our stomach as in snorkeling (not to mention that we are underwater).

The greatest limitation on our ability to learn is the scope and nature of our senses. We see only a partial spectrum of colors and hear only a limited range of sounds. Our smelling and hearing ability are completely different from a dog’s or a bird’s. Travel and migration by echolocation are totally alien to us. So we have used our intelligence to create microscopes and telescopes which have considerably expanded our horizon. This has enabled us to realize that our so-called universal laws of physics are relative also. For instance they do not apply to the quantum world of the infinitely small and infinitely large.

Our galaxy is in constant motion and objects move relative to each other. I think that helps us understand that space and time are the same entity. I think it is quite sobering to realize how many limitations there are to what and how we can learn, but it has not stopped us from striving for as much understanding as our brains allow us to absorb.

How We Learn #1


On the whole, I think I had a good education. When I was growing up, I lived in Beirut, Lebanon which was then under a French Mandate giving it a status that was slightly higher than a colony but not by much.

The French considered it their duty to educate those of us who did not have the good fortune to be born French so they established “lycees” in all their dominions. A lycee is a combination middle school, high school and part college.

Each lycee throughout France had the same curriculum as all the other schools in France. A centralized and uniform system rigidly controlled everything. This meant that early grade history books invariably started with “Our ancestors the Gauls….” Whether our real ancestors were Phoenicians or Israelites was beside the point.

Our school was called “Mission Laique Francaise” which translates as “French Secular Mission” so you might say that our teachers were secular priests spreading culture and civilization instead of religion. Besides imparting knowledge in the sciences and the humanities, they taught us how to think rationally and ask questions. We did not have “true or false” tests but had to write essays in most topics giving reasons for our point of view based of course on our mastery and interpretation of the facts. This was an excellent preparation for higher education and I am grateful to have had the opportunity.

In other respects there were serious deficiencies in the mode of teaching our school espoused. Many of you have heard about the English “public schools” where teachers not only inflicted corporal punishment but mocked, ridiculed and exposed pupils to humiliation. I see now with hindsight that some of that sadism was also present in our own teachers. For instance our graded assignments were always returned to us in class publicly following a system of “worst first” and with sarcastic comments. The longer your name was not called the more relieved you felt. The best assignments were handed out last.

Our physics and chemistry teacher had a sixth sense for sensing who had not prepared the homework and unerringly homed in on those unfortunates with unanswerable questions seemingly enjoying embarrassing them in front of the class. I guess the concept of self-esteem had not yet been invented.

Editor’s note: More musings on education to come in the next post. Please volunteer your own experiences in the comments section and we will publish them.