Physicist Alan Lightman’s Poetic Exploration of Time and the Antidote to the Anxiety of Aliveness – Brain Pickings

by Joseph K. Clark

“When you realize you are mortal,” the poet, painter, and philosopher Etel Adnan wrote while regarding a mountain, “you also realize the tremendousness of the future.” A decade earlier, shortly before a heart attack severed her lifetime, Hannah Arendt observed in her superb Gifford Lectures lectures on the life of the mind that our finitude, “set in an infinity of time stretching into both past and future, constitutes the infrastructure, as it were, of all mental activities.” While Arendt was composing these thoughts and silent cells were barricading one of her arteries, Ursula K. Le Guin was framing her novelistic inquiry into what it means to live responsibly, observing: “If time and reason are functions of each other, if we are creatures of time, then we had better know it, and try to make the best of it.” A generation before her, Borges formulated the ultimate declaration of our temporal creatureliness: “Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.”

Half a century of neuroscience and psychology have confirmed the physical fact beneath the poetic sentiment — we now know that our experience of Time is the crucible of empathy and the defining dimension of personal identity.

Discus chronological — a German depiction of Time from the early 1720s, including in Cartographies of Time. (Available as a print and as a wall clock.)

The young clerk at the Zurich patent office was thinking about none of this in the spring of 1905, the spring of a new century still verdant with possibility, when he dreamt up his general relativity — the refutation of Newton that would rattle the flow of existence, forever changing our understanding of Time; instead, Einstein was thinking of Time as a plaything of mathematics, the cold clay of an impartial universe in which we are playthings of chance.

Alan Lightman

Or was he?

After all, a revolution in understanding Time is a revolution in understanding ourselves as creatures of Time. No human being — not even the most abstract-minded physicist — can think about Time without thinking about what it means to be human, concretely oneself, tender with transience.

That is the predicate of the slender, poetic 1993 novel Einstein’s Dreams (public library) by physicist Alan Lightman — a book about Time and the tricks we play on ourselves to bear our transience. This book does for Time what Alain de Botton’s The Course of Love does for love: punctuating a fictional world with philosophical quickenings, thought experiments, and lyrical reflections on a fundamental human dimension of the real world.

Overworked and burning with ideas, the young Einstein falls asleep at his patent office desk on a series of nights in that fertile spring of 1905 to dream of worlds in each of which times work differently. Each betokens a particular manifestation of our time-anxiety that defines anxiety of our lives — each one specific tapestry of our hopes, fears, and other flights from the only Reality we have and only place we inhabit: the present.

In one of these worlds, two times exist in parallel — mechanical Time, “as rigid and metallic as a massive pendulum of iron that swings back and forth, back and forth, back and forth,” and body time, pulsating with the aliveness that “squirms and wriggles like a bluefish in a bay.” This world is a testament to astronomer Maria Mitchell’s long-ago lament that “it seems to be difficult for anyone to take in the idea that two truths cannot conflict”. In it, people live out their lives subscribing to one Time, distrusting and deriding the very existence of the other:

Another dream draws on the natural history of how Galileo invented timekeeping to paint a world in which people journey to the Temple of Time to worship the Great Clock enshrined in it — a world part-prophecy and part-admonition, caricaturing our modern cult of the clock as humanity’s significant concession in letting Time reign, in Nina Simone’s soulful words, as “the great dictator.” Lightman writes:

Guide to the Temple of Time by the visionary 19th-century cartographer and information designer Emma Willard. (Available as a print.)

There is a world in which “time is a circle, bending back on itself” so that every instance, every event, and every person “repeats itself, precisely, endlessly.”

There is a world in which Time comes with a pre-determined terminus, the precise date of which is known to all inhabitants, none of whom seem to mind that the world is ending, for “a world with one month is a world of equality.”

There is a world in which entropy moves in reverse, everything tending from chaos to order, from dissolution to coherence — the shoreline rebuilt with each lapping wave, the house paint growing more vibrant with each passing season.

A world is located at the center of Time, where Time stands still, traveling outward in concentric circles to the outside world. Lovers and the parents of small children make pilgrimages to this place, hoping to preserve their fleeting bliss:

There is a world in which imagining the future — that capacity for mental time-travel essential for our humanity — “is no more possible than seeing colors beyond violet,” and so every experience is absolute and eternal to those undergoing it:

Then there is the opposite world, in which the future is an omnipresent fixity:

Then there is the opposite of the opposite, in which the past — that sole solidity of the natural world — is unfixed, unvoided of possibility. In that world, a middle-aged man has spent his life trapped in painful memory of childhood humiliation that has come to define his identity and behavior until one day, he wakes up to a different past, devoid of the event that produced the memory and is suddenly the other person altogether. (Isn’t this the great dream of therapy, the gift of healing — the goal of self-revision?) From this imaginary world, as from all the rest, Lightman wrests a reflection on the real world, lucid and lyrical:

Having spent half of my own life trapped in a self-created world of rigid routines and clockwork habits — a half-conscious effort to manufacture the illusion of constancy and continuity, to cope with the uncertainty and unpredictability of life, to deny the fact that to be human is to be inconstant and discontinuous ourselves — there is one world that particularly thrills me and mainly terrifies me:

In truth, she loves him back, but she cannot put her love into words. Instead, she smiles at him, unaware of his fear. As they stand beneath the street lamp, Time stops and restarts. Afterward, the tilt of their heads is precisely the same; the cycle of their heartbeats shows no alteration. But somewhere in the deep pools of the woman’s mind, a dark thought appeared that was not there before. The young woman reaches for this new thought in her unconscious, and as she does so, a gossamer vacancy crosses her smile. This slight hesitation would be invisible to any but the closest scrutiny, yet the urgent young man has noticed it and taken it for his sign. He tells the young woman he cannot see her again, returns to his small apartment on Zeughausgasse, and decides to move to Zürich and work in his uncle’s bank. The young woman strolls home from the lamppost on Gerberngasse and wonders why the young man does not love her.

Art from the 19th-century French physics textbook Les Monde physique. (Available as a print, stationery cards, and face mask.)

This world might also be the incubus of Lightman’s uncommon insight into our longing for absolutes in a relative world. What gives meaning to our temporal lives — ideas contoured in Einstein’s Dreams, which he would shade over decades with his uncommon palette of physics and existential poetics.

Take, for instance, the dream world in which Time does not flow but sticks, adhering each town to a particular point in history and each person at a specific end in life. There is no shared stream of the present in this world — only islands of neighboring solitudes, each suspended in a different moment of a distant past: The tragedy of this world is that no one is happy, whether stuck in a time of pain or joy. The tragedy of this world is that everyone is alone. For a life in the past cannot be shared with the present. Each person who gets stuck in Time gets stuck alone.

This, indeed, Reality is the silent refrain of the novel: the haunting reminder that, however, the past and the future might unfold and refold in the origami of even the most elaborate time model; unless we live in the present, we are not living at all. I am reminded of Kafka: “Reality is never and nowhere more accessible than in the immediate moment of one’s life. It’s only there that it can be won or lost.” I am reminded of Kierkegaard a century before him: “The moment is not properly an atom of time, but an atom of eternality is the first reflection of eternity in time, its first attempt, as it were, at stopping time.” Above all, I am reminded of Gaston Bachelard, who reconciled Einstein and Bergson’s historical debate about Time with a larger truth merging the scientific Reality and the subjective human truth of Time: “If our heart were large enough to love life in all its detail, we would see that every instant is at once a giver and a plunderer.”

Meteors by Étienne Léopold Trouvelot. (Available as a print, stationery cards, and face mask.)

This intimation is what Einstein’s Dream leaves lingering in the deliciously discomposed mind. Time is a flock of nightingales in the last world, which the dreamt-up Einstein dreams up in the first week of summer. People race to capture under bell jars and mostly fail. Only children have the energy and speed to catch the birds, but they do not want to see them, for Time is already moving too sluggishly for them; each summer month is is an eternity. (Which of us can forget the vast spacetime of loneliness that slackens the hammock of childhood?)

On those rare occasions when an adult captures a nightingale under their bell jar, they rejoice in the frozen moment, but only for a moment. They savor the precise placement of family and friends, the facial expressions, the trapped happiness over a prize or birth or romance, and the captured smell of cinnamon or white double violets. The catchers delight at the moment so frozen but soon discover that the nightingale expires, its straightforward, flutelike song diminishes to silence, and the trapped moment grows withered and without life. Eventually, they discover that life is a warm-blooded creature pulsating with the flow of Time.

Like The Little Prince, Einstein’s Dreams remains one of those endlessly re-readable classics, unfurling new splendors of insight and subtleties of feeling which each reading. Complement it with Kahlil Gibran on befriending Time, revisit the little loophole in the Big Bang, exploring when Time began.

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