Give It to Me Straight

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   March 7, 2023

As most of us learned in school, the shortest distance between any two points is a straight line. And a point is something which has a location but has no dimensions. Many of us also learned that light travels in straight lines. Amazing as it seems (to me, anyway) light has a certain speed, which is now well-known but was measured, in historical terms, only recently – and that figure is basic to all modern physics. In fact, in Albert Einstein’s famous equation, which even I can tell you is: 

“e” equals (“m” multiplied by “c” squared)

That “c squared” represents the speed of light multiplied by itself – which is a large number but still calculable. The “e” stands for “energy,” and the “m” is “mass” – but don’t ask me to explain exactly what those things are. All I can tell you, and what, apparently, it all boils down to, is that inside the very smallest pieces of everything, there is incredible power – and hence the notion of “splitting the atom,” to release the force inside. This only became a possibility, and then an actuality, less than a century ago – in fact, within my own lifetime.

And – wouldn’t you know it – the first use that was made of this wonderful knowledge had to occur in a wartime setting, so it was naturally employed against “the enemy,” to make a bomb. There is in existence a letter signed by Einstein himself – the world’s greatest physicist – to President Franklin Roosevelt, leader of the world’s most powerful nation (to which Einstein had immigrated from Germany), in August 1939, just a month before the beginning of World War II, warning that Germany, the potential enemy, was already working on this project. 

At that point, the U.S. was still more than two years away from becoming directly involved in the conflict, and this whole matter was still a subject mainly of interest to scientists – but it soon became a hush-hush military concern, and a gigantic industrial project, centered in Oak Ridge, Tenn. Not until 1954, a year before he died, and nine years after Hiroshima, did Einstein, who was generally a pacifist, call his signing of that letter to Roosevelt, the “one great mistake in my life.”

I don’t know how my raising the subject of straightness brought us so quickly to such a world disaster – but there are far more pleasant aspects of that subject to consider. In fact, the whole idea of being “straight” has a decidedly positive image, as opposed to being “crooked” or “bent.” One example that immediately comes to mind is that of being a “straight shooter.” But where did that come from? I thought the origin might somehow be in archery or artillery. But actually, the expression seems to have begun comparatively recently as a metaphor, based on the idea that something that has been shot travels in a straight line to its target.

This brings us to ballistics – the science of how things that are shot, usually from a gun or cannon, actually do travel. Of course, thanks to gravity (whatever that is) the trajectory is never a straight line, but always some kind of a curve, more noticeable and measurable over longer distances. 

So, the truly straight shooter never has existed and never will. But in our language, the idea has a positive place, at least in conventional thinking. What has now become one very common usage refers to those people who are, or are not, homosexual, as being either “gay,” or “straight.”

But we also refer to the opposite of being under the influence of alcohol, or other drugs (for which there are innumerable terms, such as “drunk” or “stoned”) i.e. sobriety, as being “straight.” And the opposite of being a criminal, or just being dishonest, is, of course, following a path that is “straight and narrow.”

Geographically, however, a “strait,” which is a water passageway between two land masses, is always narrow, but is not necessarily “straight” at all. For example, the Strait of Magellan, at the bottom of South America, is anything but straight, as its discoverer, Ferdinand Magellan, discovered, to his dismay, in 1520.

Another interesting usage is the “Straight Man” in a comedy act, in which his partner is the one who makes all the jokes.

I myself would wind up this article with something really funny – but it would be hard for me to keep a straight face.  


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