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Guestwords: Viral Happiness

Wed, 04/01/2020 - 23:31

If human beings are Earth’s greatest natural creation, how come we have such bad knees — and the coronavirus? The guaranteed way to get through the Covid-19 era is distraction. I can divert you from thinking about the coronavirus.     

How about this: I can amuse you with Einstein’s theories of relativity. (Mass tells space-time how to curve; space-time tells mass how to move. This could be a dance.) I can distract you with quantum mechanics. (Either a blurry picture of a sharp reality according to Einstein, or a sharp picture of a blurry reality according to Niels Bohr. This is poetry.)     

Everyone always takes the advice of my brilliant and beautiful wife, Celia. After 40 years together, she still treats me as if I were her equal. You can definitely trust her, so you can probably trust me. I lectured at the Institute for Advanced Study, and I used to have top-secret clearance at Los Alamos. (However, aforementioned wife says the government made a mistake then . . . because she says I talk too much.)     

The disruption of the world’s economy may exceed the health consequences of the viral threat. But don’t worry, I will now reveal to you unbelievably intriguing problems, so engaging that you won’t even begin to think of the coronavirus menace.     

For instance: Two trains are 120 miles apart (stop me if you’ve heard this before). They are traveling toward each other at 60 miles an hour. A bee is flying back and forth from the headlight of one train to the headlight of the other train at 120 miles an hour. So the bee’s path is a diminishing zig-zag until the two trains collide. Question: How far does the bee travel?     

You can solve this by brute force. Add up the diminishing zig-zag paths of the bee buzzing back and forth. Or you can realize that if the trains collide in one hour, and the bee is traveling at 120 miles per hour, then its total travel distance is 120 miles. Cool. Physics is like this. You haven’t thought of the coronavirus while the bee is buzzing.

Now think about this: Is the infinity of integers a larger infinity than the infinity of infinitesimals between 0.00000 and 1.00000? Or smaller? Can you think about the notion that infinities come in sizes or flavors — and simultaneously think about the coronavirus? See what I mean? Now wash your hands again.     

Or consider: If a bottle that starts off empty with one bacterium that doubles every second becomes full in one hour, how long will it take to be half full? (Hint: not a half-hour.) Thinking about this will crowd out any thoughts you have of the coronavirus.     

Now here’s something that really matters. It’s well known that a cat, when dropped, will always land on its feet. It’s also well known that a slice of toast, if slipped off a table, will always land buttered side down. So here’s the question: If you strap a slice of buttered toast on the back of a cat (buttered side up) and drop the combo, which way will it land? Wash the cat.      

Now, a shrewd brainteaser to distract you from the coronavirus: A guy is sitting in a rowboat floating in a pool. He has a huge rock in the rowboat. He drops it overboard. Question: Does the water level in the pool rise, fall, or stay the same? (J. Robert Oppenheimer and I both got this one wrong. Think Archimedes. Or do the experiment.)     

Here’s how to think like Einstein. Visualize a map. Its north pole is labeled “actually smart.” Its south pole is labeled “actually dumb.” The east pole (humor me here) is labeled “sounds smart,” and its west pole is labeled “sounds dumb.”     Let’s place ideas in each quadrant. The northeast quadrant contains only those ideas that are both actually and apparently smart: Newton’s Laws, Darwin’s theory of natural selection, Einstein’s theories of gravitation and relativity. Okay so far?     

In the northwest quadrant, upper left, I place those ideas that are actually smart but sound dumb: putting certain molds on infections; controlling forest fires with fires. Still with me? Forgot about the coronavirus already?     

In the lower right-hand corner, the southeast quadrant, sounds smart and actually dumb: perpetual motion machines, astrology, seances, vampire musicals, Scientology.     

And finally, in the lower left southwest quadrant, sounds dumb and actually dumb: invading Russia in the winter, plugging a power strip into itself to get free electric power, declaring embezzled funds as income on your federal tax return.     

If you’ve followed me this far, you may realize that distraction — or focus on otherness — is the way to avoid thinking about the coronavirus. Distraction is contagious. Uni-tasking beats multitasking.     

Now, the icing on the cake: Here are my secrets of happiness and how to live a long, well-lived life in the post-coronavirus era.     

Choose the right grandparents. Be happily married. Love your work. Take a nap every day (on a good day, take two). Act immature. Linus Pauling, who won two Nobel Prizes (Chemistry and Peace, so he should know), was asked at age 100 what was his secret of longevity. He said, “Always hold the banister.” Albert Einstein said the secret of happiness was “Read no newspapers.” Always be yourself — unless you’re a dunce. In that case, you should be someone else.     

If all else fails, reread “Moby-Dick.” Enjoy romantic interludes with your partner. Take long walks — bird-watching and people-watching walks on the East End. Or in Central Park. Distraction! Diversion! Digression! Deflection!

Stephen Rosen, a physicist who lives in East Hampton and New York, is a regular contributor to The Star. He is recovering from the coronavirus.

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