Out of TimeI ordered a new filing cabinet Tuesday and arranged to have it delivered to my house on Friday. Delivery was possible only Monday through Friday, and only between 8:00 AM and 5:00 PM, days and times I would be working. I'd have to take some time off if I wanted to be there to accept the delivery.
My Friday class started at 8:00 AM, but only three trainees were scheduled. I quietly prayed that nobody would show up so I could leave work early and head for home. No such luck! I finished the class at 9:30, signed my time card, and left work.
Knowing I had a deadline (I couldn't be sure when the filing cabinet would arrive) made me nervous. If I missed it, it might be a whole week before I could try again. The clock on the dashboard seemed to be ticking off the minutes much faster than normal.
By the time I got home it was 10:30, not bad, really, but it seemed like an eternity. Time had seemed to conspire against me.
Sunday I got to church a half hour early and sat
down in the auditorium to wait for class to begin. I tinkered
with my hearing aid, checked my pen/watch, thumbed a few favorite
passages of scripture, filled out an attendance card. I was the only
one who had arrived so early, and time was dragging by. Once
again I became nervous. What was taking so long?
Einstein's DreamsEinstein's Dreams is a deceptively simple little book built around five very short episodes in the fictionalized life of young Albert Einstein, working as a clerk in the Swiss Patent Office, and his friend, Besso. Einstein is a serious student of physics, and he is deeply engaged in reading current scientific journals, critiquing them, and preparing a project of his own for publication. The subject is time!
Woven among the episodes is a series of thirty "dreams," musings in which young Einstein imagines worlds in which time behaves in strange ways. How can he reconcile these varied dream worlds into one simple understanding? The author doesn't tell us; he leaves it to us readers to verbalize.
The author, Alan Lightman, is a physicist who teaches astronomy at Harvard. He has been writing for a long time, mostly essays whose aim is to popularize some of the more esoteric concepts in his line of work. His first book, Time Travel & Papa Joe's Pipe, is a collection of his essays which succeed, more or less. But this kind of writing requires a good bit of organization and the ability to find ways to explain theories without seeming to explain. In the absence of being able to involve the reader in experiments, popular science writers use a tool that sometimes works, and sometimes doesn't—analogy.
I use analogy in my classes at Kennedy Space Center, too. It wouldn't be successful at all if I couldn't use class experiments and work exercises to make theory and application fit together.
In Einstein's Dreams, Lightman's first work of fiction, he departs dramatically from his essay style: he doesn't explain anything at all! Instead he describes, in short, simple sentences, in familiar situations, the contrasting elements that young Einstein would have to blend to come to a unified, understandable theory.
|14 April, 1905||
Suppose time is a circle, bending back on itself. The world
repeats itself, precisely, endlessly.
For the most part, people do not know they will live their lives over. Traders do not know that they will make the same bargain again and again. Politicians do not know that they will shout from the same lectern an infinite number of times in the cycles of time. Parents treasure the first laugh from their child as if they will not hear it again. Lovers making love the first time undress shyly, show surprise at the supple thigh, the fragile nipple. How would they know that each secret glimpse, each touch, will be repeated again and again and again, exactly as before?...
In the world in which time is a circle, every handshake, every kiss, every birth, every word, will be repeated precisely. So too every moment that two friends stop becoming friends, every time that a family is broken because of money, every vicious remark in an argument between spouses, every opportunity denied because of a superior's jealousy, every promise not kept...
|19 April, 1905||
...He is staring down at a tiny red hat left in the snow below,
and he is thinking. Should he go to the woman's house in
Fribourg? His hands grip the metal balustrade, let go, grip
again. Should he visit her? Should he visit her?
He decides not to see her again. She is manipulative and judgmental, and she could make his life miserable. Perhaps she would not be interested in him anyway. So he decides not to see her again...in three years, he meets another woman in a clothing shop in Neuchâtel. She is nice. She makes love to him very very slowly, over a period of months. After a year she comes to live with him in Berne.
In the second world the man...decides that he must see the Fribourg woman again. He hardly knows her, she could be manipulative, and her movements hint at volatility, but that way her face softens when she smiles, that laugh, that clever use of words. Yes he must see her again. He goes to her house in Fribourg, sits on the couch with her, within moments feels his heart pounding, grows weak at the sight of the white of her arms. They make love, loudly and with passion. She persuades him to move to Fribourg. He leaves his job in Berne and begins work at the Fribourg Post Bureau...They eat, they make love, they argue, she complains that she needs more money, he pleads with her, she throws pots at him...He lives for her, and he is happy with his anguish.
In the third world, he also decides that he must see her again. He hardly knows her, she could be manipulative, and her movements hint at volatility, but that smile, that laugh, that clever use of words. Yes, he must see her again. He goes to her house in Fribourg, meets her at the door, has tea with her at the table. They talk of her work at the library, his job at the pharmaceutical. After an hour, she says that she must leave to help a friend, she says goodbye to him, they shake hands. He travels the thirty kilometers back to Berne, feels empty during the train ride home, goes to his fourth-floor balcony and stares down at the tiny red hat left in the snow.
These three chains of events all indeed happen, simultaneously. For in this world, time has three dimensions, like space...Each future moves in a different direction of time. Each future is real.
|3 May, 1905||
Consider a world in which cause and effect are erratic. Sometimes
the first precedes the second, sometimes the second precedes the
first. Or perhaps cause lies forever in the past while effect in
the future, but future and past are entwined.
A man stands...absently emptying his pockets and weeping. Without reason his friends have abandoned him. No one calls any more, no one meets him for supper or beer at the tavern, no one invites him to their home. For twenty years he has been the ideal friend to his friends, generous, interested, soft- spoken, affectionate. What could have happened? A week from this moment on the terrace, the same man begins acting the goat, insulting everyone, wearing smelly clothes, stingy with money, allowing no one to come to his apartment...Which was cause and which effect, which future and which past?
A young woman sits near a fountain in the Botanischer Garten. She comes here every Sunday to smell the white double violets, the musk rose, the matted pink gilly-flowers. Suddenly, her heart soars, she blushes, she paces anxiously, she becomes happy for no reason. Days later, she meets a young man and is smitten with love. Are the two events not connected? But by what bizarre connection, by what twist in time, by what reversed logic?
In this acausal world, scientists are helpless. Their predictions become postdictions. Their equations become justifications, their logic, illogic...Scientists are buffoons, not because they are rational but because the cosmos is irrational. Who can say which in an acausal world?
|15 May, 1905||
Imagine a world in which there is no time. Only images.
A child at the seashore, spellbound by her first glimpse of the ocean. A woman standing on a balcony at dawn, her hair down, her loose sleeping silks, her bare feet, her lips. The curved arch of the arcade near the Zähringer Fountain at Kramgasse, sandstone and iron. A man sitting in the quiet of his study, holding a photograph of a woman, a pained look on his face...
|22 May, 1905||
This is a world of changed plans, of sudden opportunities, of
unexpected visions. For in this world, time flows not evenly but
fitfully and, as consequence, people receive fitful glimpses of
When a mother receives a sudden vision of where her son will live, she moves her house to be near him. When a builder sees the place of commerce in the future, he twists his road in that direction. When a child briefly glimpses herself as a florist, she decides not to attend university. When a young man gets a vision of the woman he will marry, he waits for her...
For those who have had their vision, this is a world of guaranteed success...
For those who have not had their vision, this is a world of inactive suspense...
Thus, in this world of brief scenes from the future, few risks are taken. Those who have seen the future do not need to take risks, and those who have not yet seen the future wait for their vision without taking risks.
|5 June, 1905||
...The Aare bends to the east, is sprinkled with boats carrying
potatoes and sugar beets...
But seen through the eyes of any one person the scene is quite different. For example, one woman sitting on the banks of the Aare sees the boats pass by at great speed, as if moving on skates across ice. To another, the boats appear sluggish, barely rounding the bend in the whole of the afternoon. A man standing on Aarstrasse looks at the river to discover that the boats travel first forwards, then backwards.
The discrepancies are repeated elsewhere. Just now a chemist is walking back to his shop on Kochergasse, having taken his noon meal. This is the picture he sees: two women gallop past him, churning their arms wildly and talking so rapidly that he cannot understand them. A solicitor runs across the street to an appointment somewhere, his head jerking this way and that like a small animal's...
On the other side of the street, the baker observes the same scene. He notes that two women leisurely stroll up the street, stop to talk to a solicitor, then walk on. The solicitor goes into an apartment at no. 82, sits down at a table for lunch, walks to the first floor window where he catches a ball thrown by a child in the street.
To yet a third person standing under a lampost on Kochergasse, the events have no movement at all: two women, a solicitor, a ball, a child, three barges, an apartment interior are captured like paintings in bright summer light...
In a world where time is a sense, like light or like taste, a sequence of episodes may be quick or may be slow, dim or intense, salty or sweet, causal or without cause, orderly or random, depending on the prior history of the viewer. Philosophers sit in cafés on Amthausgasse and argue whether time really exists outside human perception.
|22 June, 1905||
...This is a world in which time is not fluid, parting to make
way for events. Instead, time is a rigid, bonelike structure,
extending infinitely ahead and behind, fossilizing the future as
well as the past. Every action, every thought, every breath of
wind, every flight of birds is completely determined, forever...
In a world of fixed future, life is an infinite corridor of rooms, one room lit at each moment, the next room dark but prepared. We walk from room to room, look into the room that is lit, the present moment, then walk on. We do not know the rooms ahead, but we know we cannot change them. We are spectators of our lives...
He owes his friend money but prefers to buy himself presents. As he walks, admiring his new coat, he decides he can pay his friend back the next year, or perhaps never at all. And who can blame him? In a world of fixed future, there can be no right or wrong. Right and wrong demand freedom of choice, but if each action is already chosen, there can be no freedom of choice. In a world of fixed future, no person is responsible. The rooms are already arranged...He breathes the moist air and feels oddly free to do as he pleases, free in a world without freedom.
|27 June, 1905||
...Forty years ago in school, one afternoon in March, he urinated
in class. He could not hold it in. Afterwards, he tried to stay
in his chair, but the other boys saw the puddle and made him walk
around the room, round and round. They pointed at the wet spot on
his pants and howled...They hooted and called him "bladder baby,
That memory has become his life. When he wakes up in the morning, he is the boy who urinated in his pants. When he passes people on the street, he knows they see the wet spot on his pants. He glances at his pants and looks away. When his children visit, he stays within his room and talks to them through the door. He is the boy who could not hold it in...
In a world of shifting past, one morning the quarryman awakes and is no more the boy who could not hold it in. That afternoon in March long gone was just another afternoon. On that afternoon forgotten, he sat in class, recited when the teacher called him, went skating with the other boys after school. Now he owns a quarry. He has nine suits of clothes. He buys fine pottery for his wife and takes long walks with her on Sunday afternoons...
As the sun rises over the city, ten thousand people yawn and take their toast and coffee. Ten thousand fill the arcades of Kramgasse or go to work on Speichergasse or take their children to the park. Each has memories: a father who could not love his child, a brother who always won, a lover with a delicious kiss, a moment of cheating on a school examination, the stillness spreading from a fresh snowfall, the publication of a poem. In a world of shifting past, these memories are wheat in wind, fleeting dreams, shapes in clouds. Events, once happened, lose reality, alter with a glance, a storm, a night. In time, the past never happened. But who could know? Who could know that the past is not as solid as this instant, when the sun streams over the Bernese Alps and the shopkeepers sing as they raise their awnings...
"Einstein has been explaining to his friend Besso why he wants to know time. But he says nothing of his dreams...
"Einstein leans over to Besso, who is also short, and says, 'I want to get close to The Old One.'..."
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