Theory of Relativity ...... Explained

on Wednesday, September 26, 2007

If you are expecting me to explain to you Einstein's Theory of Relativity, you are in need of medical treatment. Please seek the help of a health care professional or refer to Wikipedia for an explanation of THAT theory. Suffice to say that there is something about how time slows down in relation to speed and gravity.

I will instead be explaining the LGS's Theory of Relativity. This theory similarly predicts that certain physical parameters such as quantity, distance and time may change in relation to one's cultural upbringing. Don't understand? I am not surprised. Pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo is often more confusing than the real thing. However, do not despair. All will be clear after you read the following examples of the phenomena.

A story is told about a missionary who was befriending a native tribe in the rainforests of Papua at the beginning of the 20th Century. This tribe live in very small family groups in a very remote part of the forests and have had little contact with other tribes. As the missionary began to earn the trust of the leader of one of the family groups, he also learned much about their culture and their beliefs.

One interesting thing was their counting system. They had words for the quantity or numbers 1 to 5. The word for "5" was "liman". "Liman liman" was the expression if the number was more than 5 and "liman liman liman" when they wanted to express a very large number.

Another pecularity was the way the different family groups often fought each other over small disputes. The fighting was ritualistic with small group of warriors facing each other at a predetermined location. They would fight with great ferocity but as soon as someone was killed, the fighting would end and one side would accept defeat and pay compensation in form of fruits and livestock. Some others though may later die of their wounds. Usually not more than "liman" were killed. It was a rare fight where "liman liman" were killed.

Nevertheless, the missionary worked amongst the family groups and eventually managed to get them to stop these petty wars and to resolve their differences over a peace table. The family group leaders generally were happy with this change and the missionary became their good friend.

Then there was the outbreak of the First World War. News of the war reached even into this jungle interior. The missionary met with one of the family groups in the jungle and the leader of the group could see that the missionary was sad. He asked the missionary what the problem was and the missionary said that he was sad because men were dying in a great war.

The leader asked if "liman" had been killed. The missionary shook his head. More. The leader kindly said to him, "It is sad that liman liman have died. Too many have died. It is time to offer fruits and pigs and make peace." The missionary wept. He knew that the old man would never comprehend that millions had died in the war. Even "liman liman liman" was never meant to mean millions.

An American Woman was traveling on her own in Ireland, driving through the countryside just following her whims and fancies. As she drove past some beautiful pastoral country with rolling hills and sheep farms, she came to a fork in the road. The road sign was most peculiar as there was an arrow in each of the two directions but each arrow had the name of the town Donnegal and both said 30 kilometers. She stopped the car and pondered about it. Seeing a farmer nearby in the field, she got out of the car and called out to the farmer.

The farmer came over to the farm wall next to the road and asked how he could be of assistance. She asked if the road sign was correct and that both roads led to Donnegal. The farmer said that was right. She then asked if it was true that it was 30 km to Donnegal on either road. The farmer replied pensively, "Aye, that would be right."

"Then what is the difference?" she asked curiously.

"Well now, the road on the left would be the longer way." the farmer replied.

"But both roads are 30 km from Donnegal" she protested.

"Now there, young lady, if you take the left road you will find it is longer than if you took the right road." the farmer persisted.

The woman did not understand but she thanked him and said goodbye. She then drove on taking the left road. She was very happy to have taken the left road as it went along the coast and there were spectacular views of cliffs and beaches. She stopped in many places along the way to walk and take pictures. As a result, she got into Donnegal after dark and had a little trouble looking for a place to stay.

Eventually, though she found a place and as she was registering she explained to the clerk at the B&B that she was late because she had seen so many wonderful sights along that road. The clerk nodded knowingly and said," Yes well, you took the long way here, that's why you were late. If you had taken the other road, it would be much shorter as there is nothing to see."

Suddenly she understood what the farmer meant.

The American couple had hired a local guide from among the Orang Asli or Aboriginals in the Malaysian jungle to guide them to the Buaya Sangkut waterfall. The couple who had been hiking in the area were told by other travelers about this spectacular waterfall in the jungle but they were also warned that it would be a difficult and long trek.

When they got to the staging point, they could not find anyone who could speak English well but managed to get the guide through a mixture of pointing at maps, gesticulting and a few English words. Nevertheless, they were in high spirits as they followed their guide into the jungle.

At the start of the journey, there were lots of animals and plants to distract them and they did not notice the time passing but after they had been walking for about two hours, the guide allowed them to take a short break along the trail. They asked him how much further and he replied, "Not far now."

However, another hour passed and they were still on the trail. "How far now?" they asked and the reply was "Not far now". But the trail seemed to be endless and endlessly going upwards. So they stopped the guide, pointed at their watches and said "How far? How many minutes? Don't say not far now."

Now Orang Asli have no use for watches and they measure time by the sun. They do not have the concept of minutes. But as the American couple kept pestering him about how much longer the journey would take, he took out some tobacco and rolled himself a cigarette. He lit the cigarette and said to the couple, "Not far. One smoke away."

The American couple were relieved. They estimated that it meant that their destination was only about another 15-20 minutes away. They sat there for about five minutes taking a break and when it was finally time to move on, the guide put out the cigarrete with his fingers and put it in his pocket. They would walk for another hour before he took the cigarette out again during a break and smoked it. Again he put it out and kept it in his pocket when it was time to move on. In the end they did reach their waterfall but that "one smoke" turned out to be 3 hours.


MedStudentWife said...

Good theory, LGS - and so true. All concepts of measurement are so decidedly (defined)cultural.

Ever notice how some days are longer than others & many people around you have the same sense that day ?

When I was up North, distance was measured by the time it took you to walk someplace, not in kms.

adelym said...

I went to India once with a mission training group. We were suppose to share in a meeting. When we arrived there, we asked if we were late (not good to be late for meetings). We were told no not late. Then we asked what will meeting start. We then told that it was SOON. After half and hour we asked again. Same thing, we were told SOON. This happend few times. Guess what? The meeting started only about 4 hours after we arrived.

patterns of ink said...

I love that you can write inspirationally about a great hymn (last post)and intellectually about Einstein and culture.

...Kat said...


geewits said...

I think about this stuff a lot. The flight TO Hawaii seems to pass pretty quickly, but the flight BACK is an unending nightmare. The day of your dental appointment approaches quickly, but the first day of your vacation takes FOREVER to arrive.

I will always remember to take the "longer" road now. The scenery sounded excellent.

...Kat said...

That was Such FUN the other day, you posting to FLOW and me being right there in real time, seeing it, making that adjustment immediately and having you Respond and Comment as you did ..... you tickled my funny bone with delight.... as you have several times :-> I would like to have been the fly on your computer screen watching your eyes "bug out" with a 'what just happened did I do that?!'...... take care, friend.

Lone Grey Squirrel said...

It's also true in the jungle. Due to terrain and dense vegetation, a place can be near and yet take a long time to get to. And when you are walking, you are most concerned about daylight in the jungle. Hence, distances are often given as time taken to make the journey.

Haha. Indian Rubber Time....very elastic.

I think you flatter me excessively cause I don't think there was too much intellectualizing in this post! :)

Lone Grey Squirrel said...

I thought you might enjoy a post on Einstein even if it was just peripherally about the man and his work. Did you see the equations on the black board?

The other day at FLOW was such fun. Internet at its best with almost real time interaction. Good choice of background color, by the way!

You gave some other great examples of the relativity of our perceptions. For me, the journey to a place always seems longer than the return journey. I also like the "longer road" idea. It is a wonderful example of the slightly off kilter but perfectly sensible common wisdom and outlook of life of the Irish. It's wrong but makes so much sense!

HeiressChild said...

hi LGS, i enjoyed this article. it truly does show how perceptions vary from one person to another.

Tai said...

I really really enjoyed this look at perspective...thanks LGS!

leslie said...

I love the 30 kilometers to Donnegal. It's all relative, isn't it?

Janice Thomson said...

Einstein's theory of relativity is the backbone to the fundamentals of the space-time continuum. When you fully grasp the meaning and all its possibilities then one's outlook on life completely changes. Excellent stories Lgs.

meggie said...

Your posts never disappoint LGS!

the walking man said...

Never take for granted what another knows of a certainty



many have asked me how many miles my travels have taken me and the only way to answer is 53 years worth

riseoutofme said...

Have been having trouble reading your posts lgs ....everytime I click on you, up comes your page and then the whole thing freezes ... anyone else having this problem??

Thankfully, today, it hasn't frozen .... yet.

Enjoyed this immensely ... especially the Donegal story ...

Lone Grey Squirrel said...

If we don't understand that perceptions can be different, we risk misunderstanding. It's the case of putting one's self in the other's shoes. Thanks for your comment.

Thanks. I have enjoyed your recent posts very much.

I have learnt with age and experience that it is better to take the longer road.

Lone Grey Squirrel said...

To be honest, I only know a little about the real Theory of Relativity. Not enough to really grasp its myriad implications ....other than what I have garnered from some Sci Fi stories. Hence, my version of the universe and relativity. ;)

Thank you ever so.

Lone Grey Squirrel said...

53 years of travel is a lot of miles and a lot of memories and hard earned wisdom. Congrats on your journey.

Sorry to hear you have had troubles coming over to visit. No one else has informed me about problems visiting. However, I did change my ice cream eating avatar to a more autumn looking avatar in the beginning of the month and it needed me to upgrade by browser to view it. Perhaps that could be the problem?

Josie said...

LGS, Omigosh, what a great post. It's true, isn't it? Time and distance and numbers really are all relative. It's all how it feels. Some days zip by really quickly, and others drag.

I'll bet the woman's journey to Donegal felt shorter than the "shorter" road, because she was enjoying herself so much. said...

I have read somewhere that science and religion share the same yoke.
So you look for the yoke itself to locate these two?
Ah, relativity.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

What a fascinating and delightful post!

Among Native Americans, there is a concept called "Indian time" which has little relation to clock time and should never be counted on in that way. I understand that native Hawaiians have "Hawaii time," which operates the same way.

And the Australian aborigines have "walkabout" in which, as I understand it, they are freed from all time and space constraints for the duration.

Time is a malleable aspect of our lives. Clocks are mere jumping off points.

I always love your stories which take me to other cultures and gently nudge us to think in new ways.

Lone Grey Squirrel said...

Re-applying the Theory right back at me! LOL. Glad you like id.

Looking for the common yoke of science and religion? Really? You give this humble theory a lot more credit than it is due but thanks.

yes, many cultures have a different perception of time. Malaysia follows the Malaysian Rubber Time which can be very elastic. I like the Irish logic behind a longer and shorter road of equal distances. And to be freed of time during an Aboroginal walkabout, does challenge the way we think and manage time.

Marja said...

Thanks this is very interesting and very recognisable eg. When I lived in Holland people started complaining about the rain after 3 months. Here in NZ people (including me) start to complain after 3 days of rain.

blackcrag said...

You don't even have to be of differentcultures or backgrounds.

I grew up in the country to the west of Toronto. When I say country, I mean there was a pond in the backyard, a marshy area separated us from our next door neighbour (a cow field), and we were surrounded by farms.

The nearest of my friends in the area lived at least a half-hour bike ride away.

I still think nothing of a half-hour or hour's walk or bike ride. Many people think I'm crazy for even a five minute walk.

Open Grove Claudia said...

What lovely, thoughtful stories. I saved them for a time when my monkey brain could actually read and focus.

Thank you for sharing such great stories.

Jocelyn said...

Your anecdotes are so well explained. I have loved, in the past, teaching intercultural communication, for just these reasons. We humans are endlessly diverse.

CS said...

Perspective - iy's so hard to see the world through soeone else's eyes.

felipe vito said...

Bottom line is you are me and i am you we're all together in this mysteriously relative world. if we dig deeper, no greed, no pride, no hunger, and that's "imagine" of john lennon but other people just don't get it. So a minute for one is a millenium for many. Great through simple ways. God bless.

Lone Grey Squirrel said...

I thought NZ was a rainy country!

I think you grew up in a wonderful place. Keep your walking habits.

Thanks. Happy reading.

Lone Grey Squirrel said...

I love diversity too.

We would gain so much if we could regularly see the world from someone else's perspective.

felipe vito,
Your words echo many others and point the way to better understanding and love. Peace.

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