Among the many specific concepts the student of physics must learn, perhaps none is so deceptively simple as frame of reference. On the surface, it seems obvious that in order to make observations, one must do so from a certain point in space and time. Yet, when the implications of this idea are explored, the fuller complexities begin to reveal themselves. Hence the topic occurs at least twice in most physics textbooks: early on, when the simplest principles are explained—and near the end, at the frontiers of the most intellectually challenging discoveries in science.
There is an old story from India that aptly illustrates how frame of reference affects an understanding of physical properties, and indeed of the larger setting in which those properties are manifested. It is said that six blind men were presented with an elephant, a creature of which they had no previous knowledge, and each explained what he thought the elephant was.
The first felt of the elephant's side, and told the others that the elephant was like a wall. The second, however, grabbed the elephant's trunk, and concluded that an elephant was like a snake. The third blind man touched the smooth surface of its tusk, and was impressed to discover that the elephant was a hard, spear-like creature. Fourth came a man who touched the elephant's legs, and therefore decided that it was like a tree trunk. However, the fifth man, after feeling of its tail, disdainfully announced that the elephant was nothing but a frayed piece of rope. Last of all, the sixth blind man, standing beside the elephant's slowly flapping ear, felt of the ear itself and determined that the elephant was a sort of living fan.
These six blind men went back to their city, and each acquired followers after the manner of religious teachers. Their devotees would then argue with one another, the snake school of thought competing with adherents of the fan doctrine, the rope philosophy in conflict with the tree trunk faction, and so on. The only person who did not join in these debates was a seventh blind man, much older than the others, who had visited the elephant after the other six.
While the others rushed off with their separate conclusions, the seventh blind man had taken the time to pet the elephant, to walk all around it, to smell it, to feed it, and to listen to the sounds it made. When he returned to the city and found the populace in a state of uproar between the six factions, the old man laughed to himself: he was the only person in the city who was not convinced he knew exactly what an elephant was like.