E=MC What?

Theory of Relativity

Einstein said the math was easy after he saw what the universe was like. For him, maybe. iStockphoto.com hide caption

itoggle caption iStockphoto.com
Bill Harley

Bill Harley is a storyteller, songwriter and author who lives in Seekonk, Mass. His latest recording of songs for families is Yes to Running. Susan Wilson hide caption

itoggle caption Susan Wilson

I've never had much luck with epiphanies, which is why I'll always remember standing in the middle of the Museum of Natural History in New York and seeing the universe open up wide in front of me.

Through a serendipitous and fortuitous series of events, I was getting a guided tour of the Einstein exhibit by an Italian nuclear physicist. She pointed casually at the exhibits, using them only as starting points, but using her own words to explain Einstein's insights about time and space and gravity. There was the din of hundreds of people chattering and scuffling around me — a flow of humanity and energy that exhibited its own demonstration of chaos theory and random systems.

I don't now how many times I've read about the theory of relativity or had someone explain it to me. Every time it was explained to me, I understood it – kind of. I would always nod. "I get it. I get it. Kind of..."

And I was doing about the same thing as she explained.

And then it happened.

I can't tell you what she said.

Maybe it was because she really, and I mean, really, really understood what she was talking about. But there was some trigger in her words. Suddenly, the floor fell out from beneath my feet. Something in my head expanded. I was, for an instant, adrift and free in the universe. And out there, I saw that nothing was like I thought it was. All the rules I used to walk across the street and brush my teeth and eat vegetables were only approximations of what was true. What was true was something else entirely. Everything else entirely. It wasn't anything like I thought it was. I caught my breath. My eyes dilated. My skin bristled.

OMIGOD! I said out loud.

And just that fast, the door to the universe shut.

I was back in a noisy exhibit at a museum, surrounded by hundreds of humans.

But she saw what had happened to me.

"Did you get it?" she asked.

I nodded. "But now it's gone," I said.

"That's the way it is," she said. "You just keep coming at it from different angles, and after a while you spend more time there."

Einstein said the math was easy after he saw what the universe was like. For him, maybe. And my Italian physicist. But all I got was the feeling — which I've never gotten again.

But I carry that memory of what it's really like, if only my head and heart were big enough to spend more time there.

One more thing, though.

When I look back on that day, seeing the universe as it is may not be the most amazing thing that happened .

What is truly amazing is that I saw the universe because of someone's words.

Words can do that.

They can change your world.

There's an epiphany I can use.

Just words, they say. Hah. Just words.

Bill Harley is a storyteller, songwriter and author who lives in Seekonk, Mass. His latest recording of songs for families is Yes to Running.

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