First things first. There’s a Wendy’s in the middle of the intersection. Hard to get around that.
It’s been there since the mid-’80s, on a wedge of land bordered by First Street NE and Florida and New York avenues, at a major gateway to Washington, D.C. Surrounding the Wendy’s is a “virtual traffic circle,” a polite way to refer to this urban aneurysm — a pair of triangles, really, with a roundabout movement forced upon them.
Take any side of it and plot the agony: The desperate dashed curve across six lanes of New York (Jesus take the wheel!); the pummeled yellow pylons on First, a memorial to driver perplexity. If you want to stay on Florida eastbound, you must make three turns (good luck finding the lane you need) and endure three signals. All to stay on the street you wanted to stay on.
Thought experiments have played a crucial role in the history of physics. Galileo was the first great master of the thought experiment; Albert Einstein was another. In one of his most celebrated thought experiments, Galileo shows that heavy objects and small objects must fall at the same rate. On another occasion – building on the ship’s mast argument – he deduces the equivalence of reference frames moving at a constant speed with respect to one another (what we now call Galilean relativity), a cornerstone of classical physics.
Einstein, too, was adept at performing such imaginative feats in his head. As a young man, he imagined what it would be like to run alongside a beam of light, and it led him to special relativity. Later, he imagined a falling man, and realised that in freefall one doesn’t feel one’s own weight; from this insight, he concluded that acceleration was indistinguishable from the tug of gravity. This second breakthrough became known as the ‘principle of equivalence’, and led Einstein to his greatest triumph, the general theory of relativity.
What these examples have in common is that knowledge seems to arise from within the mind, rather than from some external source. They require no laboratory, no grant proposal, no actual doing of … anything. When we perform a thought experiment, we learn, it would seem, by pure introspection. ‘Seem’ is perhaps the key word. Whether thought experiments actually do present a challenge to empiricism is hotly contested.
There is a fake restaurant around the corner from my apartment.
It pretends to be a restaurant, oh sure. It has tables and chairs, waiters and a bartender, dressed in neckties over white shirt. But no one ever eats there. Occasionally, a passerby might see a solitary guy at the bar, or a pained-looking couple, marooned in an inland sea of deserted tables. It is under-attended, suspiciously so.
In our lifetimes, we will see the passing of the last Holocaust survivors and the remaining witnesses of World War II. Once they are gone, their personal possessions will be the last physical reminders of what they endured. Among the lost belongings of the survivors and witnesses of the war are books and archival collections, and these are the subject of Anders Rydell’s latest work, The Book Thieves. Rydell’s tale is a fascinating blend of intellectual history, detective story, and “restitution activism” that cannot help but inspire its readers.