Time Is Still a Mystery to ‘Einstein’s Dreams’ Author

Why Alan Lightman, astrophysicist turned writer, traded black holes for black ink.

Comments: 45

  1. As usual, marvelous comments from Dennis Overbye. But I do wonder why Overbye—(and Lightman)—doesn’t acknowledge the voluminous writings of the late J T Fraser, who also began as a working physicist, but who found physics too confining with respect to how we can begin to understand time. Fraser had early on founded the influential International Society for the Study of Time. Is it because Fraser was not “an academic”?

  2. "[Fraser] found physics too confining with respect to how we can begin to understand time." Where, precisely, does Fraser say that? Please cite a reliable source with a complete, direct quote.

  3. @rjon. No.

  4. @rjon Fraser is not the topic of this article. Lightman is the topic of this article.

  5. Years ago when I was superintendent of schools in Glendale, Ca., one of our high school principals invited me and his entire staff to attend a discussion of Einstein's Dreams. He knew it was one of my favorite books. We sat around sharing what we thought were our "profound thoughts" about the meaning of time. Toward the end the school custodian, who had remained quiet, raised his hand and said very simply, "Before I read the book, I thought time was money. Now I realized that time is life." We all immediately realized he had captured the essence of the book in that one simple reflection. I've never forgotten his comment or its source since.

  6. @Jim Brown This is among the most compelling book recommendations I've encountered. Now I must get that book. Thanks!

  7. @David S (Los Angeles) you are right! I'm getting this book for the same reason.

  8. The irony of the general theory of relativity is that it dreams / begins with the thesis that the 'speed' of light (speed being merely a relation to begin with, that is, a relation between measured clock time and measured distance) is fixed and invariant, thereby conflating too many issues unecessarily. Endlessly complex research projects into general theories of everything at once, including gravity, ensue, all self-referential and prone to fantastical metaphysical speculation, giving 'theory' a bad name. The simpler truth, and one which Einstein was apparently willing to abandon, is that neither distance nor time is fixed or invariable to begin with, making a 'constant' speed of light impossible and thus, arguably meaningless, and as so much in science, merely a trick of the books/equations/the vagaries of the measuring equipment. However, this theory, like many others, does seem to confirm that technological (wo)man loves to turn ideas into text, further theories, and technology, regardless of the consequences. The consequence of repeating texts /tech is abandonment of common sense, and even, abandonment of life in favor of dead matter (or reification). Working scientists aren't able to question the theoretical foundations of their fields, and are stuck merely prettying up the details of the alleged equations, like cobblers or tailors. Scientific theories do not 'fit' the world, they fit purposes; and Einstein's purpose was to 'rationalize' a dream....

  9. "... the general theory of relativity is that it dreams / begins with the thesis that the 'speed' of light ... is fixed and invariant, ..." More accurately, the *special* theory of relativity *assumes* that the speed of light in a vacuum is constant. In the general theory of relativity, the speed of light can *vary* depending on the gravitational field through which it passes. In his book, "The Perfect Theory"*, astrophysicist Pedro G. Ferreira paraphrases Einstein writing in 1907: "The presence of gravity would alter the speed of light and cause clocks to run more slowly." (p. 10) See, however, "Faster Than The Speed Of Light: The Story of a Scientific Speculation" by Joao Magueijo (2003). * "The Perfect Theory: A Century of Geniuses and the Battle over General Relativity" by Pedro G. Ferreira (2014).

  10. @Tom Schuman “Reification” is the tip off that someone else is selling their own version of “everything at once” and that is their gripe. From Germany. Spot on. Poetic. And. Nice use of the electrons flowing through processors that are so small they deal with quantum effects and traveling as light waves across the Atlantic to post the comment. Reified. That is the word is it not?

  11. @Tom Schuman The problem with "problems" with relativity, is that it grew from an empirical observation and has led to a multitude of predictions that have been verified by empirical observation. From the Michelson-Morley experiment, - which kicked off the whole thing - to gravitational lensing, we see relativity's effects if we know where to look. And common sense is a rather poor guide. Common sense tells me that the Earth is the biggest, most stable thing there is, and that it's roughly flat. And those lights in the sky rise up from the horizon in the east and fall down in the west; where they go in the meantime, common sense can't say.

  12. "... a card-carrying wizard of space and time ..." Paradoxically, "Einstein's Dreams" never mentions "space-time", nor does it mention "mass", "energy", or "simplicity". Admittedly, text searches in Google Books are not conclusive, but one wonders why a book, albeit a novel, purporting to be about Einstein never mentions some of his important physical and philosophical ideas. In contrast, Einstein's early papers are translated and thoroughly annotated in this book: "Einstein 1905: The Standard of Greatness" by John S. Rigden (2005). And it mentions all of the words missing from Lightman's book.

  13. @PAE If you read the book, you'll know why. You've imagined it to be something very different than it is.

  14. AlanB: "If you read the book, you'll know why." I read enough while *researching* my comment to "know why" I don't want to read it. AlanB: "You've imagined it to be something very different than it is." Do tell -- what "is" it?

  15. “When I was in my 20s and 30s, I never imagined being this age,” he said. “I knew theoretically you know unless I got some terrible disease that I would eventually be this age. For years and years and years I was the youngest person in the room, and now it seems like I’m the oldest person in the room. And I wonder: How did that happen?” I recall being about 21 or so in college, junior year when one day I realized how wonderfully young I was but at the same time, I also looked forward and said to myself "Good grief. In just 25 short years I'll be 46 looking at 50, and then in another 25 years I'll be in my 70's...it will all pass to quickly. And it did. I'm 72 now. There have been two marriages, 2 children, 4 grandchildren and lots of fun and heartache between 21 and now. Seventy two is both a curse and gift. I don't like getting older but I don't want to stop getting older! It's really a gift. My mom is 97 and relatively healthy. Who knows. One of my favorite gifts to my son was the book by Stephen Hawking; A Brief History of Time. I wonder if we will ever be able to time travel not just forward. Or maybe, after we're gone, genetically our consciousness, our awareness will return and we'll get a second chance. Or maybe we'll just haunt the mind of future generations.

  16. To think about time abstractly is to get caught in the wrong level of analysis, rather like looking at a Cezanne and analyzing the pigments in terms of chemical composition. We are creatures in the strange sea of time, but whatever meaning we have is not from our ideas of time, but what we do with it.

  17. The progression from scientist to writer makes sense to me. Science can only observe what exists, while artists create what does not yet exist. That satisfies both the ego and imagination. In the end, all scientists, from Archimedes, to Newton, to your six year old daughter who may one day win the Nobel Prize, look at the physical world, and find poetry. Poets close their eyes, and see everything.

  18. OMG—Gorgeous celebration of Spirit!

  19. Long before I majored in physics (at MIT, to drop a name), my high school chemistry teacher went on about his disgust with Isaac Asimov for leaving the working track in biochem to become a scribbler! Asimov generated around 500 books, some of them famous, and wrote at flank speed until brought down by an especially malicious biological agent. Anyone with significant contact with working scientists would agree that verbal and writing skills are not common, so the luminaries like Alan, Dennis, Carl, and Isaac are not only rare, but a gift to the interested lay public who need interpreters of the inaccessible, arcane, technical literature.

  20. I was a big fan of Einstein’s Dreams when it came out and often wondered whether Mr. Lightman had heard the song “Einstein’s Day” by the Boston band, Mission of Burma. The song is on the album Vs. which was released in 1982 when Lightman was based in the area. Mission of Burma was a legendary act at the time in the region and I find it hard to believe the writer wouldn’t have been aware of them. I highly recommend the song to NYT readers! https://youtu.be/vO4iLB6kq6M

  21. The answer to your question, Mr. Lightman: it's all relative.

  22. I really enjoyed reading this article. Human Beings are the time-walkers.

  23. Time is but an illusion of a greater dimension where we are all connected.

  24. “Such is the cost of immortality,” Mr. Hitchens wrote. Ah, if I were a photon, then I would be timeless! At the speed of light I could take a billion years to travel the Universe in what to me would be an instant. But then, as soon as I hit something I would die without having ever lived. What an irony! We wonder about the meaning of life, but would not be able to understand it if it hit us in the face. A scientist-philosopher, whose name I forget, concluded that the search for meaning was itself meaningless. He may be right, but it is such fun to try...

  25. @Hipolito Hernanz Sir...you are a poet and a steely-eyed rocket man. Thanks for that vision.

  26. What a beautiful meditation on the limits of the human mind even in presence of true genius. I read the book when it first came out and loved it. It is still with me as if I read it yesterday. Thank you for the reminder.

  27. An outstanding piece on an outstanding man who wrote about the intersection of eternity and infinity. Bravo!

  28. Time is definitely the wierdest "dimension." Only goes one way. Perception of time can vary but never goes backwards. I formulated a theory that the human perception of time is affected by one's own life span. When you are are 5 years old a year is 20% of your lifetime so seems to last a long time but when you are 50 a year is only 2% so it goes by so much faster. Even apart from human psychology, time is still really wierd.

  29. “I could see their minds working and just see that they just had a very, very high capacity and ability to see things” These people are not seeing the world as the rest of us do. (As an engineer, I still cling to the world as Newton explained it, no matter how many times relativity is explained to me. That long train cannot fit into that short tunnel.) They remind me of the American chess prodigy and one time World Chess champion Bobby Fischer. He was not playing the same game as the rest of us. On one occasion, he was getting off an elevator when he recognized another chess Grand Master. The other man started to say something when Fischer stopped him, saying, "You're going to say I should have moved bishop to g3, and that's wrong." Fischer was referring to a game several years earlier, when they did not even write the moves down. Not the same game, not the same view of the universe.

  30. In the movie "Fahrenheit 451" people try to save books by memorizing them. I used to wonder which book I would ever love enough to do that. Then I read "Einstein's Dreams." Haven't memorized it but I re-read it regularly. Marvelous.

  31. I have always been fascinated by "time" . I was so taken with "Einstein's Dreams" that I translated 6 of the chapters onto paintings on small canvases. Time is constant motion. Every time we take just one step, we are already in the future. There is only one occasion when time is constant and that is the memory of that moment of time.

  32. And, the point of this article is . . .?

  33. So...what? Was there any real thought, theme, concept, or epiphany being pursued here, at which a last half-dozen lost paragraphs might have hinted, before some Hey, GenZ subeditor hit “Delete” to make room for more clickbait? Or was there never any actual there there in the first place? A Boomer here and there would like to know....

  34. @JH Bravo! My point exactly, see post a couple of minutes after yours.

  35. Given the headline "Time Is Still a Mystery," this is a nothing article. I was expecting something more significant than "Did you ever think you would be so old?" What was the point?

  36. The story about Hitchins brought to mind the famous bedside quip of W.C. Fields...I imagined Hitchins' version as : "Just looking for a wormhole!"

  37. Professor Lightman is 71 years old. Wonderful article about him!

  38. I once asked a physicist of very high denomination at the University of Chicago if anybody had any idea what time was, he said, "No, it must be a deeper structure than we've seen yet".

  39. The heroes we put on a pedestal are often not the ones who did the actual work. Einstein cribbed his derivation of e=mc^2 from DePretto, which Besso brought to his attention, according to a Guardian article. Einstein also took most of his math from David Hilbert. There is even vandalism to David Hilbert's math notes regarding general relativity, probably from Einstein's mythologists, according to physicist Brian Greene. In today's world, cryptic physicists are doing most of the advanced work behind the scenes while popular book writers continue to play the "great man" record on repeat.

  40. If there were not entropy, there would not be time.

  41. @Dan If there were no time, there would be no entropy. Chasing your tail?

  42. Thanks to Lightman, but most of all to Richard Feynman for opening the eyes of a UCSC Ron Ruby Physics student to, well, everything. After Feynman explained (of which my understanding was paltry) what was beyond Newton's world, nothing ever looked the same. For a beautiful time travel Sci Fi novel, please consider Greg Benford's, "Timescape"

  43. There is one fundamental that explains time -- stress...

  44. E.O. Wilson, wrote a novel. Mr. Wilson, author of more than twenty books including a Pulitzer Prize winner, is one of the world’s preeminent biologists. He wrote a novel titled “Anthill” not a Pulitzer Winner, but fun to read. And then, there’s the amazing Theoretical physicist Lisa Randall, whose books on particle physics and Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs, are brilliant and accessible to the lay readers, are two great examples of how science does not have to be abandoned in order to write books and publish. In fact, I think that if scientists adopt literary writing as a means to reach lay audiences, the more support there will be for scientific research .