The Theory of General Relativity


by cheri sabraw

I’m almost finished with Walter Isaacson’s biography of Albert Einstein titled “Genius.”

In it, Isaacson spends quantum verbiage trying to simplify Einstein’s remarkable equations that, post Newton, explained the significant physicality of our universe such as light, gravity, thermodynamics and the relationship (or relativity) of heavenly bodies to such invisible natural occurrences.

Einstein was able to conceptualize and then master equations that proved his theories largely by his early focus on thought experiments, his boundless creativity, and his feisty defiance of authority.

I’ve had to up my caffeine intake to understand this material.

Relativity isn’t confined to the subject of physics.

I remember during class discussions with bright high school juniors and even brighter university business students, often using the phrase, ” It’s all relative, isn’t it?” Here I meant that the subject at hand could only be discussed in relation to something else. For example, if we were discussing The Scarlet Letter, Hester’s decision to have sex with her pastor invariably came up. Was this wrong? A moral sin? Were there extenuating circumstances that the puritan community might have considered before banishing her to a life alone and to the branding of a large capital A on her bodice? The puritans saw her behavior in absolutes.

Some of us think in absolutes; others, in relativity.


Here, Ms. O’Keeffe is advocating for abstraction. Her point, I think, in this quotation is that painters who paint realistically aren’t as capable of communicating reality as are painters who leave things out…say one breast or a purple scrotum or a decapitated teapot. We the viewer are left with spaces, so to speak, to fill in with our own sensibilities. Surely, according to Ms. O’Keeffe such artistic expression is superior to the art of Maynard Dixon or William Keith who painted grand landscapes with recognizable trees and stony edifices called mountains.

It’s all relative, isn’t it Ms. O’Keeffe?

Which painting do you like? This one?


Or do you like this one?


When I tell you that the first painting is Cezanne’s and the second one is Louis Collin’s, does that color your opinion?

Here is a close-up of the lacy gloves.


Einstein girded his relativity theories with hard-core mathematical equations. They become absolute, do they not?

In art, we do not have E=MC 2.

All we have is a pool of relativity.


It’s up to us to decide the value of art by taking a close look.

About Cheri

Writer, artist, cable television host, grandmother to four!
This entry was posted in Nature photography, People and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to The Theory of General Relativity

  1. Susan says:

    Love the way you distill it to only what is relative.

    • Cheri says:

      Ha! Succinct and clever comment Susan! If only Walter Isaacson had done that…I might have finished this biography last week but my, my, he is a man of many words. I almost didn’t finish Leonardo. Thank you for reading!

  2. shoreacres says:

    As it happens, I recently spent a day at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, where a new O’Keeffe exhibit has been hung: thirty paintings! It was fascinating, and compelling. O’Keeffe quotations were scattered among the paintings, and I wrote down nearly every one — including the one you’ve included here.

    I happen to agree with her that it is “by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things.” I don’t for a minute believe that abstraction and relativity are the same, and I don’t think she believed it, either. Even Bouguereau’s gypsy girls and Asher Durand’s Kindred Spirits, realistic as they are, still partake of selection, elimination, and emphasis.

    In his Alexandria Quartet, Lawrence Durrell, speaking through the writer Pursewarden, makes the same point, albeit differently phrased:

    “Only there, in the silences of the painter or the writer can reality be reordered, reworked and made to show its significant side. Our common actions in reality are simply the sackcloth covering which hides the cloth-of-gold — the meaning of the pattern.”

    I’m home, but with house guests, and little time to think or write. I can’t begin to write about the O’Keeffe exhibit; I need time for reflection. But I thought of you as I was walking through it, even as I found myself nodding in recognition at her words.

    • Cheri says:

      I look forward to your post on the installation of O’Keeffe’s work in the Crystal Bridges Museum.

      Her quotation is certainly thought-provoking and has made me reevaluate my own painting and artistic decisions (license) as to what I include and what I exclude. I do think that when every detail is attended to, the viewer has little to imagine and part of the lure of art is to imagine oneself in the painting.

      • shoreacres says:

        “Part of the lure of art is to imagine oneself in the painting” — that’s interesting. I don’t know that I agree, but I don’t know that I disagree. It’s something I’ll ponder, for sure. That’s part of the reason I love your blog. There’s always something new to ponder!

  3. Richard says:

    Reality is but a divine poem. Man responds how he may.

  4. Annie Van Es says:

    Both paintings are wonderful. I admire the painting of Cezanne. I want to learn paint more free But I paint realistic In every painting you put something from your self. When I would buy one of these paintings I shall choose the second painting I would be glad to look at this painting. And Cezanne’s painting will me bore when I have to look during a long time at this. The choose between two styles is difficult sometimes.

    • Cheri says:

      Hi Annie, welcome to my blog and I thank you for your comment! I see that you are also an artist. I, too, would choose the second painting to buy and was so struck by the skill of the painter, that I just had to photograph the lacy gloves. How DID Collins paint so well? How did he do that? And you are right–choosing between two styles wasn’t a fair question for me to ask! I do not care for this particular Cezanne painting either.

  5. Art lives through the imagination of the people who are seeing it. Picasso proved that detail in portraiture wasn’t necessary, and Van Gogh demonstrated that stars really do spin. Having said that, I would choose the second painting. Not only because my genre has been portraiture, but the painting would never become boring. It gives one the opportunity to imagine. And I would definitely dump the frame on the Cezanne!

    • Cheri says:

      Yes. That frame is a bit much and seems to compete with the painting itself. I love your first sentence which captures all artistic endeavor and those who gaze upon it. I, too, would choose the second painting. I stepped as close to the painting as I could to view those gossamer gloves. Incredible work.

  6. ShimonZ says:

    All our lives, and with all our senses in tact, we are only aware of a small part of reality. That’s why the best works of art don’t try to tell it all. And then, different people notice different aspects, and only one in so and so many people has blood type O positive, and can offer a taste of their soul to so many others… believing in one god, it seems to me that everything is related, and so we are all relatives… animals, plants, and inanimate objects; I’ll join you in song, everything is relative.

    • Cheri says:

      What a lyrical comment, Shimon. Your second sentence is one that I have been trying lately with my own painting. I don’t need to tell it all!
      And coming from an O positive gal who brakes to avoid hitting a squirrel or tarantula, let’s hear it for LIFE!

  7. Richard says:

    Nature obeys consistent rules from the furthest limits of our conception to the smallest we can perceive. Einstein’s pioneering work in both relativity – classical, or everyday physics – and quantum physics, to do with the very small – are human attempts to understand those rules.

    Relativity is apparently predictable, quantum physics appears to obey precise rules of chance. Both rely on Nature’s consistency or the mathematics wouldn’t work. They come into conflict at the extremes, as in black holes.

    Just when we think we know it all, we discover that we know nothing, Euclid’s geometry held sway for two thousand years and was believed absolute until we found a different way of looking at the world. The same happened when Einstein displaced Newton. Neither was wrong, one was simply a better match to Nature than the other. In response to later developments in quantum theory, Einstein uttered his famous words, “God does not play dice with Nature”, yet quantum physics is regarded as more successful and Einstein’s view misconceived.

    Our understanding of how and when Nature moves smoothly from the quantum world to the classical world is practically non-existent.

    You were thus ingenious to highlight the analogous difference between the worlds of abstract, or impressionist, Art and the realistic. Both are wrong, but right in their own way. Do we look at the lace or the sunlight on the distant mountain top and the mist in the valley? What happens in between? We ask ourselves: are we too judgmental? Are we denying others our God-given freedom to move in, and even control, a world bound by strict rules?

    You were right, too, to draw the correspondence to moral obligation. Again, are we too judgmental?

    Law and politics are human efforts to live in harmony, individual fulfilment and relative prosperity. We, including our judges, owe a common moral duty, amongst other duties, to try to obey the law, even if it is bad, in exchange for our freedoms and equality under and before it. Political revolution, or individual law-breaking, particularly if violent, is the abdication of that responsibility.

    A most stimulating post. Even your photo of cattle captures stationary cows yet is full of motion !

  8. Cheri says:

    What a dramatic comment. I am glad you noticed my intentional placement of that first photograph. Here is what is surprising: when I wrote this post, I had NO IDEA that Isaacson would then include the fact that the “new” art community of the 20’s, pushing for abstraction related to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. The author goes on a bit. Unfortunately, as the early 30’s came around in Germany, anti-Semetism began to flourish. It found its way into the German scientific communities. Those Jewish scientists, of which Einstein was one, found themselves the subjects of jealousy, alienation, and violence. At the same time, the right-wing of Hitler’s growing supporters were also attacking modern art in which many Jewish artists participated.

    This is the first blog post I have written in which I was prompted to write about a topic that, unbeknownst to me, would appear in the book I was reading down the road.

    Thank you for this wonderful comment.

    • Richard says:

      I should just remind myself of one further point concerning the transition from the quantum world of chance to the deterministic classical world of relativity.

      It involves the intervention of human observation. There is an intimate relation between the how the world appears to behave and our act of looking. The canvas we paint is the result of how we watch and what we do.

  9. wkkortas says:

    So this is a different take on relativity than that offered by Dorothy Parker?

  10. Cheri says:

    OK. I will admit that your pithy comment sent me on a bit of a wild Parker hunt, turning up nothing. I was sure she had written a poem on the Theory of Relativity but alas, just one on Theory. Since you have now stumped the author of this overly dramatic blog post, you win the big prize: telling us what you meant, you poet, you.

  11. Lue Perrine says:

    I like the 🐄🌾🌳 photo the best.
    So peaceful! 😉

  12. Cheri says:

    Clever! I’m flattered that you chose my picture over Cezanne’s….

    • Lue Perrine says:

      I do! You have such a precious heart and it’s expressed in your art! Oh! I believe Einstein had a dream first about relativity before writing his theory! Our dreams are so important! ☁️☁️☁️😴

  13. Cheri says:

    Oh gosh, Lue. Yes, he did! And yes, dreams are fascinating. Where do they come from?

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