Einstein’s Dreams

(Excerpts)
Alan Lightman
physics, time, Albert Einstein, Alan Lightman
hyphenation

24 APRIL 1905

In this world, there are two times. There is mechanical time and there is body time. The first is as rigid and metallic as a massive pendulum of iron that swings back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. The second squirms and wriggles like a bluefish in a bay. The first is unyielding, predetermined. The second makes up its mind as it goes along.

Many are convinced that mechanical time does not exist. When they pass the giant clock on the Kramgasse they do not see it; nor do they hear its chimes while sending packages on Postgasse or strolling between flowers in the Rosengarten. They wear watches on their wrists, but only as ornaments or as courtesies to those who would give timepieces as gifts. They do not keep clocks in their houses. Instead, they listen to their heartbeats. they feel the rhythms of their moods and desires. Such people eat when they are hungry, go to their jobs at the millinery or the chemist’s whenever they wake from their sleep, make love all hours of the day. Such people laugh at the thought of mechanical time. They know that time moves in fits and starts. They know that time struggles forward with a weight on its back when they are rushing an injured child to the hospital or bearing the gaze of a neighbor wronged. And they know too that time darts across the field of vision when they are eating well with friends or receiving praise or lying in the arms of a secret lover.

Then there are those who think that their bodies don’t exist. They live by mechanical time. They rise at seven o’clock in the morning. They eat their lunch at noon and their supper at six. They arrive at their appointments on time, precisely by the clock. They make love between eight and ten at night. They work forty hours a week, read the Sunday paper on Sunday, play chess on Tuesday nights. When their stomach growls, they look at their watch to see if it is time to eat. When they begin to lose themselves in a concert, they look at the clock above the stage to see when it will be time to go home. They know that the body is not a thing of wild magic, but a collection of chemicals, tissues, and nerve impulses. Thoughts are no more than electrical surges in the brain. Sexual arousal is no more than a flow of chemicals to certain nerve endings. Sadness no more than a bit of acid transfixed in the cerebellum. In short, the body is a machine, subject to the same laws of electricity and mechanics as an electron or clock. As such, the body must be addressed in the language of physics. And if the body speaks, it is the speaking of only so many levers and forces. The body is a thing to be ordered, not obeyed.

Taking the night air along the river Aare, one sees evidence for two worlds in one. A boatman gauges his position in the dark by counting seconds drifted in the water’s current. “One, three meters. Two, six meters. Three, nine meters.” His voice cuts through the black in clean and certain syllables. Beneath a lamppost on the Nydegg Bridge, two brothers who have not seen each other for a year stand and drink and laugh. The bell of St. Vincent’s Cathedral sings ten times. In seconds, lights in the apartments lining Schifflaube wink out, in a perfect mechanized response, like the deductions of Euclid’s geometry. Lying on the riverbank, two lovers look up lazily, awakened from a timeless sleep by the distant church bells, surprised to find that night has come. Where the two times meet, desperation. Where the two times go their separate ways, contentment. For, miraculously, a barrister, a nurse, a baker can make a world in either time, but not in both times. Each time is true, but the truths are not the same.

29 MAY 1905

A man or a woman suddenly thrust into this world would have to dodge houses and buildings. For all is in motion. Houses and apartments, mounted on wheels, go careening through Bahnhofplatz and race through the narrows of Marktgasse, their occupants shouting from second-floor windows. The Port Bereau doesn’t remain on Portgasse, but flies through the city on rails, like a train. Nor does the Bundeshaus sit quietly on Bundesgasse. Everywhere the air whines and roars with the sound of motors and locomotion. When a person comes out of his front door at sunrise, he hits the ground running, catches up with his offices building, hurries up and down flights of stairs, works at a desk propelled in circles, gallops home at the end of the day. No one sits under a tree with a book, no one gazes at the ripples on a pond, no one lies on thick grass in the country. No one is still.

Why such a fixation on speed? Because in this world time passes more slowly for people in motion. Thus everyone travels at a high velocity, to gain time.

The speed effect was not noticed until the invention of the internal combustion engine and the beginnings of rapid transportation. On 8 September 1889, Mr. Randolph Whig of Surry took his mother-in-law to London at high speed in his new motor car. To his delight, he arrived in half the expected time, a conversation having scarcely begun, and decided to look into the phenomenon. After his researches were published, no one went slowly again.

Since time is money, financial considerations alone dictate that each brokerage house, each manufacturing plant, each grocer’s shop constantly travel as rapidly as possible, to achieve advantage over competitors. Such buildings are fitted with giant engines of propulsion and are never at rest. Their motors and crankshafts roar far more loudly than the equipment and people inside them.

Likewise, houses are sold not just on their size and design, but also on speed. For the faster a house travels, the more slowly the clocks tick inside and the more time available to its occupants. Depending on the speed, a person in a fast house could gain several minutes on his neighbors in a single day. This obsession with speed carries through the night, when valuable time could be lost, or gained, while asleep. At night, the streets are ablaze with lights, so that passing houses might avoid collisions, which are always fatal. At night, people dream of speed, of youth, of opportunity.

In this world of great speed, one fact has been only slowly appreciated. By logical tautology, the motional effect is all relative. Because when two people pass on the street, each perceives the other in motion, just as a man on a train perceives trees to fly by his window. Consequently, when two people pass on the street, each see’s the other’s time flow more slowly. Each sees the other gaining time. This reciprocity is maddening. More maddening still, the faster one travels past a neighbor, the faster the neighbor appears to be traveling.

Frustrated and despond ant, some people have stopped looking out their windows. With the shades drawn, they never know how fast they are moving, how fast their neighbors and competitors are moving. They rise in the morning, take baths, eat plaited bread and ham, work at their desks, listen to music, talk to their children, lead lives of satisfaction.

Some argue that only the giant clock tower on Kramgasse keeps true time, that it alone is at rest. Others argue that even the giant clock is in motion when viewed from the river Aare, or from a cloud.

Alan Lightman

Alan Lightman (born November 28, 1948) is an American physicist, writer, and social entrepreneur. He is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the author of the international bestseller Einstein’s Dreams. He was the first professor at MIT to receive a joint appointment in the sciences and the humanities.

Source

A. Lightman: Einstein’s Dreams.