Wednesday, March 21, 2012

a necessary follow-up to a statement I made to my students in introductory astronomy at Yale.

One day in the astronomy section I taught at Yale in 1980 I asked the class what the speed of light was. It was a loaded question. In mks terms (meters, kilograms, seconds) it is 299,792,458 meters/second. But in general relativity terms, all the fundamental constants have the geometrically significant value of 1. So, knowing general relativity is not familiar to most general studies undergraduates, I thought I would throw them a curveball with the possibility of a later "ah-hah!" moment. I said, "it's one." Evidently no one recognized this value as c, the speed of light, and the room was dead-faced and some were absolutely shocked and mystified. I had no intention of ruining the ahah potential and didn't explain myself, saying nothing more that class. It might have been my last session. I was shortly undergoing a mental illness relapse because I had decided to go off my medication a few months before arriving at Yale for graduate school.

My apologies to anyone only now getting this brief explanation.