On the curvature of beer coasters and spheres

I told a friend of mine, Josh, about the course I am teaching at Amsterdam University College. I told Josh that in last week’s class we treated Albert Einstein and his relativity theories, and how whoppingly strange it is to imagine curved space (or even spacetime).  At some point during that lecture, as I was calmly and comfortably rambling on about how Einstein’s discoveries had flabbergasted his contemporaries and radically changed our views on reality, one of the students raised her hand: “What are we talking about here? I know what a curve is, that’s when the road bends before me, like a line that’s not straight. But that line is on paper… what does it even mean to say that ‘space itself is curved’?

When the girl had asked her question an indistinct murmur rose up from the group of students. I was silent for a moment, and then I suddenly realised how silly I had been: Here I was, trying to explain how amazing were Einstein’s theories about spacetime and the way it curves, and I had forgotten to start with explaining what this curvature is!

One thing at a time. Let’s first discuss space and spatial curvature. Let’s begin by trying to answer this question: How can it be that space is curved if it has nothing to curve into? how can space bend if it can’t bend anywhere?!

Continue reading “On the curvature of beer coasters and spheres”