“I was lucky enough to notice what the beetle didn’t notice.”
Tucked away in the corner of the Iowa amusement park known as Arnolds Park is a single-room house, smaller than a one-car garage, with one door and one false window. This is the Bug House. Here, for a modest admission, you can experience Einstein’s theory of relativity. You must also be at least 42 inches tall. We have limits in Iowa.
You step through two connecting doors into a parlor with an overstuffed chair, a standing lamp and a table parked into three corners. On the floor is farm kitchen linoleum. The theory of relativity seems to imply linoleum.
The room is dominated by an old fashioned face-to-face double porch swing stretching nearly wall-to-wall. The yellow metal swing rotates on two tractor-sized hub and axles painted red with a touch of grease oozing out.
You take your seat in the porch swing and, with a light push, you are swinging, gentle as a soft, summer breeze. Maybe someone will bring around lemonade. Just like your porch at home. Except there’s no view and all of the furniture—chair, table and lamp—are bolted to the walls.
The swing starts to nudge higher. The floor seems to rock. The swing goes higher, climbing up the wall. Your head is higher than the lamp, approaching the ceiling. You clutch the seat, the swing arcing to the top.
You’re upside down. No seat belt. No strap to hold onto. But, no gravity. You feel out of your body, out of your mind—you’re in the bug house. No up and no down.
Just the swing: full circle and back again. Just the room spinning around.
The sensation of motion (and sometimes motion sickness) is overwhelming and weird. All of the coordinates that we use to position our body in the world are “wrong.” We feel that we are moving in full circle upside down to right side up.
However, as the ride ends, we realize that—except for the initial push—we barely moved at all. Our identifying coordinates moved: the entire room—floor and all—rotated. The room was indeed spinning around. Our spatial disorientation—the queasiness and false sense of falling—was all due to the loss of a frame of reference.
This was one of Einstein’s insights: there is no fixed frame of reference in the universe. Everything is moving relative to everything else. Frames of reference are in constant motion. So, in the Bug House, the frames of reference move, causing visceral discomfort.
The Bug House—bug house was slang for an insane asylum in the early 20th century—is also known as the Mad House or the haunted swing illusion patented by Amariah Lake in 1893.
Is the universe a bug house? Or a haunted porch swing? Pour a glass of lemonade and think about it.