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Summer Reading 2015
Faculty Readers Respond

 

Table of Contents

Yelena Biberman, Assistant Professor of Government

Andrew Bozio, Assistant Professor of English

Carolyn Chernoff, Visiting Assistant Professor of Sociology

Holly Derr, Artist-in-Residence for Theater

Bina Gogineni, Assistant Professor of English

Kate Graney, Associate Professor of Government and Director of Gender Studies

Mark Huibregtse, The Class of 1964 Term Professorship of Mathematics and Computer Science

Patrice Malatestinic, Lecturer of Music

Mary Crone Odekon, Professor of Physics

Bernie Possidente, Professor and Chair of Biology

 

ESSAYS:

Yelena Biberman, Assistant Professor of Government

Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams explores different ways not only of measuring but also of experiencing time. The different manifestations of time – such as acausal (May 3, 1905) or passing more slowly for those in motion (May 29, 1905) – result in different interpersonal, political, and economic relations. Lightman invites us to consider alternative worlds where what we take for granted, as an intangible but unfailing given, is fundamentally altered. Each alternative world feels eerily alien yet familiar, barely manageable but plausible.

As political scientists, we rely on time to determine whether something (let’s call it “A”) causes a particular political phenomenon (“B”). If A appears after B or if A and B appear simultaneously, then A could not have caused B. For example, let’s take the relationship between democracy and security. Many experts and observers argue that when countries experience insecurity – either from internal upheavals or foreign threats – they are likely to become authoritarian. The logic is that political leaders use insecurity to justify undemocratic practices, such as denial of voting rights, curtailment of free speech, illegal surveillance, and torture. The political leaders, and their constituents, may also think that their country’s survival trumps democracy: democracy is a luxury they cannot afford until the threat is eliminated.

If insecurity causes authoritarianism, then we would expect countries first (at t, with t=time) to experience insecurity and then (at t+1) transition from democracy to authoritarianism. But is this always the case? When we look at countries such as Russia and Turkey, which currently appear to be transitioning from democracy to authoritarianism, the results are mixed. It may be argued that a serious domestic threat – the Second Chechen War (1999 to 2002) – led to the rise of Vladimir Putin and his authoritarian practices. When it comes to Turkey, however, serious security threats did not precede Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s increasing crackdown on civil and political rights of Turkish citizens. As a member of NATO (capable of invoking Article 5) and with the Kurdish insurgency largely subsided, Turkey enjoyed relative security outside and within its borders during the early years of Erdoğan’s tenure. To sum up, insecurity may be a cause of authoritarianism. But, as our time-based exercise shows, it is neither a necessary condition nor the only possible cause. Determining causality is an important but complex enterprise, and paying attention to time and timing helps us better to understand globally- (and locally-) important issues.

Another take-away point from Einstein’s Dreams for political scientists is the important role of creative thinking. The book shows that a great way to understand something (in this case, time) is to imagine it in different ways. In other words, we may use counterfactuals. For example, to understand what democracy is, we may consider what freedom of speech would be like if democracy was a privilege of a select few.   

Einstein’s Dreams transports us into the subconscious mind of a brilliant physicist. Einstein’s subconscious mind provides a safe space for exploring ideas – a virtual space worth visiting from time to time inside, and outside, the classroom.

 

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Andrew Bozio, Assistant Professor of English

Einstein’s Dreams is certainly innovative in its approach to time, but the book remains heavily indebted to another work of literary fiction – Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities – in its structure and tone. In Invisible Cities, Calvino weaves together stories about fanciful cities, and, like Lightman’s visions of time, the cities presented to us are extraordinarily dreamlike. But the context of these stories makes them politically charged. The narrator is Marco Polo, and he presents his stories to Kublai Khan, “the emperor of the Tartars.” With his description of invisible cities, Polo creates an unmappable space, which represents a serious challenge to Khan’s dreams of empire. “True,” the narrator seems to say, “you can imagine these spaces. But you cannot occupy them.”

Lightman’s apparent debt to Calvino raises an important question about Einstein’s Dreams. What’s at stake in reimagining time in the way that Lightman does? At first glance, we might say that it’s impossible to occupy time in the way that an army or an empire occupies a city. But that observation doesn’t mean that time is neutral. In the past decade or so, literary and cultural theorists have proposed a difference between “straight time” and “queer time.” A life lived within straight time adheres to specific traditions and expectations, whereas queer time imagines “a life unscripted by the conventions of family, inheritance, and child rearing,” as cultural critic Jack Halberstam puts it. The purpose of these observations is not to suggest that all straight people or all queer people inhabit time in the same way, but rather to help us consider the manner in which systems of belief emerge from lifestyles and identities.

Einstein’s Dreams disrupts the idea of a singular, normative Time, and it suggests, instead, that there’s an intimate relationship between the way that we live and the way that we understand temporality. But I would argue that Lightman fails to push this disruption far enough. That is, he never achieves the political critique that we see in Calvino’s work or the insight that we see in the theory of queer time.

Let me provide two examples that show where Lightman’s thinking falls short. First, the dream of 24 April 1905 revolves around a suggestive difference between bodily time and mechanical time. The difference appears to be radical, with bodily time presenting an implicit challenge to mechanical time. But Lightman’s conception of bodily time is also surprisingly abstract. Based on his description, it would seem that everyone experiences their body in the same way, regardless of their gender, race, sexual orientation, or physical and mental abilities.

Indeed, the worlds that Lightman envisions are striking in their lack of racial, economic, and sexual diversity, and we might say that they’re disappointing in their treatment of gender, as well. A second example emerges in the world of the Nows and the Laters, where we find that men and women respond to their “infinite list of relatives” in different ways (93). “When a man starts a business, he feels compelled to talk it over with his parents and grandparents and great-grandparents,” but “when a daughter want guidance from her mother, she cannot get it undiluted” (93). These narratives imply radically different trajectories for men and for women within the world of the Nows and the Laters. In other words, time may be fluid in Einstein’s Dreams, but patriarchy appears to be constant. In discussing the book, we might ask if it’s possible to take Lightman’s central insight – namely, that time is what we make of it – and push this insight into a more radical or inclusive vision.

 

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Carolyn Chernoff, Visiting Assistant Professor of Sociology

Do you know that saying, “every dog will have its day,” meaning that everyone gets their chance, their 15 minutes of fame à la Warhol?  For sociologists, the saying is reversed: every day will have its dog.  Social forces produce heroes, leaders, and geniuses.  There may be 25 people all doing brilliant work in physics, say, but history will remember only one Einstein.  Does that mean that genius and hard work don’t matter?  No, of course not—but that individual effort, skill, and talent are deeply impacted by other factors outside the control of individuals.  Agency, meet structure.

In this book, we move, dreamlike, from possibility to possibility to think about one of the great Scientific Geniuses of Our Times as a human being shaped by happenstance, by social forces, and by images that form during sleep.  In its way, the book reminds us that scientific genius is not a birthright, or an inborn trait, but a social construction.   

Sociologists talk about the principle of social construction: the world around us is determined less by innate or universal truths about the human condition, and more by our social patterns and practices.  Society is truly a social effort.  People make up groups, groups make up organizations, and so on.  But time, as an abstract concept, helps to pattern our lives, and renders “natural” that which takes social effort.  For example, the 40-hour workweek was a social invention (as the bumper sticker says, “The Labor Movement: The Folks Who Brought You the Weekend”)—but rush hour traffic certainly feels “real,” concrete, existing outside of thoughts and visions.

The book asks readers to consider whether we are oriented towards the Now, or the Later.  Much like the famous marshmallow experiment, where children who are able to wait to eat a marshmallow rather than gobbling it immediately are rewarded and seen as possessing what we now call “grit” or self-control, much of contemporary society posits a battle between immediate gratification and long-term needs.  But in dreams, time collapses.  And extends.  And suggests that perhaps there are more than two options. 

Each dream is a world of possibility.  In visiting Einstein’s dreams, we are invited to see the principle of relativity at work.  We can imagine alternate realities for Einstein and for ourselves by taking a step back from the forward progression of time.  But even dreams incorporate an element of time, whether linear or simultaneous.  The question is not which vision is correct—but how any framework shapes our ability to understand and to know.

Einstein’s Dreams emphasizes time, networks, and coincidences in shaping society.  The book also makes a strong argument for the liberal arts, for bridging humanities, natural and applied sciences, and social sciences rather than pitting fields against one another.  In true Skidmore fashion, you could read this book as a tacit endorsement of our motto: Creative Thought Matters.  Certainly Einstein has emerged from history as a singularly important scientist—but in his actual biography, and here, in a biomythography (to borrow Audre Lorde’s phrase), creativity, interdisciplinarity, and a healthy skepticism are linked.  So consider this book a reminder to look for unusual connections among academic disciplines, and to take seriously the power of dreams and the imagination.  If society is a social accomplishment, that means that we have tremendous power to imagine new possibilities.

 

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Holly Derr, Artist-in-Residence for Theater

A Director's Dream

As a theater director, I use a methodology called Viewpoints and Composition, which posits that the medium out of which we make theater is space and time. The methodology names five Viewpoints of space (shape, gesture, spatial relationship, architecture, and topography) and four of time (kinesthetic response, tempo, duration, and repetition) that creators should be aware of when making theater. Composition, then, is writing in space and time by making specific choices involving the Viewpoints. By using them in ways that differ from reality, artists can create fictional playworlds that operate according to their own logic.

In other words, theater directors engage in the same process that Alan Lightman depicts Einstein using in Einstein’s Dreams: we imagine a variety of worlds in which space and time operate in different ways and draw conclusions about what would happen in worlds like that. Hence theater directors engage in the same imaginative process as scientists; we also engage in the same kind of experimentation as scientists using something pretty close to the scientific method.

This fall I will direct Shakespeare’s Macbeth on the main stage of Skidmore’s theater, and Lightman’s book has given me a number of ideas with which to experiment. I might hypothesize that in a Macbeth playworld like that in the fictional Einstein’s dream of 26 April 1905, where time moves more slowly farther away from the center of the earth, the pace of the play might vary accordingly:  the play's murders could be committed in the fast moving space and the slow moving space could be where characters stop and think. The other artists and I would then experiment with that hypothesis by staging all of the murders center stage and having them happen very quickly; actors would move further to the edges of the stage and slow down for their soliloquies and thoughtful discussions. We would then gather data about how this choice informs the meaning of the play and determine whether we want to keep these choices or continue experimenting, say by having the murders happen in the spaces where time moves slowly and the thinking happen quickly at center stage. In Viewpoints terminology, this experiment involves both tempo and topography.

Alternatively I might hypothesize that in order to create a Macbeth playworld that operates like the dream of 3 May 1905, in which cause and effect are erratic and sometimes effect comes before cause, we must focus on the relationship between Macbeth and the witches, using the Viewpoint of kinesthetic response (an actor’s instinctive response to stimuli outside of himself) to show that Macbeth is not actually motivated by what the witches tell him but is rather hearing something he has already thought of on his own. In other words, Macbeth’s reaction to the witches would reveal that rather than introducing new ideas, the witches have actually appeared as confirmation of his preexisting desires.

Which dreams will ultimately shape our playworld? Come see the show and find out. Better yet, be a part of the process yourself.

 

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Bina Gogineni, Assistant Professor of English

Lightman’s arresting novel prompts the following question: What happens when we address different attitudes toward time in our lived contemporary reality—a less speculative, acultural, apolitical context than this novel’s?

Differences in conceptions of time have spawned significant conflicts among cultures in the increasingly interconnected world of the past 500 years. If Einstein’s theory of relativity cosmically relates time and space, we might relate conceptions of time to geo-cultural space: How do different human communities conceive of time according to their own traditions and beliefs, and what happens when power insinuates itself into the resulting confrontations within a shared (i.e., globalized) space? These are questions addressed by anthropologists, religious studies scholars, historians, and literary critics alike.  Yet general discussions of cultural relativism, often focused on the role of religious traditions in the secular public sphere (debates on headscarves, female circumcision, blasphemy, etc.), rarely address the issue of time, although time is a fundamental structuring principle of human communities.

In Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, the literary critic Erich Auerbach articulates two different ancient narrative modes, the Homeric and the Hebraic, featuring nearly opposite approaches to temporality.  The Homeric narrative mode is, according to Auerbach, marked by a lack of temporal dimension.  While narration proceeds according to chronology, “everything is illuminated” equally; no episode is subordinated to another. Instead, past episodes, no matter how seemingly insignificant, and no matter their interruption to the forward march of the narrative, are lavished with the same attention as events that might otherwise be considered climactic.  Auerbach then contrasts Homer’s “retarding effect” with the suspense of the Old Testament, achieved through temporal subordination that allows for foregrounding and backgrounding.  At climactic moments, such as Abraham’s angst-ridden preparation to sacrifice his son Isaac to God, the moral urgency derives from the character’s keen awareness of the past—past conversations with God, past mistakes, past promises.

The very different philosophies of time implied by these narrative forms nonetheless weave together within the Western literary tradition.  However, not all differences in cultural conceptions of time are so complementary. Consider another literary example, namely postcolonial magical realism, a novelistic mode that reflects the colonial confrontation between Europe and its non-Western colonies.  In magical realism, the novel form, born in Europe and thus bearing a linear conception of time, confronts native conceptions of cyclical time. Magical realist narratives self-consciously stage this confrontation, often allowing native conceptions of cyclical time—informed by intimate relations with nature and the seasons, beliefs in reincarnation (or the like), and a mythic approach to the past—to prevail over the linear interpretations of the history of the post-colonial nation.

This is a political choice and challenges colonialism’s imposition of its conception of time on its native subjects.  Indeed, the “clock time” of industrialization was one of Europe’s most significant exports to its colonies.  Britain, placing itself at the center of the world (c.f.: Greenwich Mean Time) imposed “universal” time throughout its empire to co-ordinate its activities. The South African animation artist William Kentridge brilliantly critiques this colonial imposition in his recent installation entitled “The Refusal of Time.”  In it, black bodies bear down under the pressure of, destroy, and pirouette away from, the clocks and related industrial machines that have enslaved them.

If we are to take seriously the critical insights of these postcolonialists, would it not mean a re-conception of the now heterogenous public sphere to account for varying cultural notions of time? In today’s globalized world, radically alternative approaches to time jostle uncomfortably in a given space. Power subordinates some of these approaches to others; the time orientations of the dominant nations continue to prevail. What would it mean to take a more culturally relativist approach to time, making an effort to honor and reconcile different cultural attitudes toward it? When we read Lightman’s novel, we encounter multiple theories of time without having to reconcile them. But in lived globalized culture, we must make an earnest attempt to reconcile differences.  Let Lightman’s novelistic thought-experiment spur us to take on this more politically vexed project.

 

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Kate Graney, Associate Professor of Government and Director of Gender Studies

Einstein's Dreams as Liberal Arts Inquiry

You have all heard of Albert Einstein and can recognize his iconic visage. You might even have grappled at some level with his assertion that E=MC 2, even if you, like most of the rest of us, are not quite sure what that equation actually means. Now, however, having read Einstein’s Dreams, you have had your understanding of Einstein and his ideas enlarged, complicated, and deepened. I hope that, like me, you have been moved by Lightman’s skillful evocation of the human-scale, emotional and psychological implications of Einstein’s “scientific” insights into the nature of physics, matter, and time. Perhaps, like me, you have been brought up short by the depth and profundity of ideas and emotions girding any of the single days or interludes described in Einstein’s Dreams. Perhaps, like me, this is the first time in a long time, or ever, that scientific ideas have evoked emotional responses in you.

This, it seems to me, is the true achievement of Lightman’s book. Lightman’s exquisite ability to bring the simultaneous intellectual/scientific, emotional/psychological and moral profundity of Einstein’s oeuvre to life is, to my mind, a perfect distillation of the aim of the humanistic mode of study that you have chosen to pursue and will soon begin. Ideally, all the different forms of learning you will undertake at Skidmore—in the natural or social sciences, in the humanities, and in the performing arts— will lead you back to the big questions that animate both Einstein’s thinking and Lightman’s creative and literary rendering of it: What is? Why is it? And so what? Lightman’s genius is to demonstrate the intellectual, emotional and moral depth and seriousness that is contained in those deceptively brief questions.

Much of the work that you will do Skidmore will certainly be more “challenging” than reading Einstein’s Dreams—you will have to train your body and brain to long hours of reading, writing, thinking, painting, singing, and more thinking. Over the next four years you will certainly find yourself struggling at times to make both intellectual and emotional sense of what you are laboring to read, think, write or perform. I hope at some of these points, the memory of Lightman’s sublime rendering of the human and cosmic possibilities contained in Einstein’s “scientific” thought will come back to console you and to inspire you to ask again and again those deceptively brief questions – What is? Why is it? And so what?

Einstein’s thinking about existential, moral and social questions was as profound and important as his “scientific” work—he was equally driven to try to understand the physical world and humanity’s place within it. Similarly, Lightman explores the literary form’s ability to illuminate the emotional and moral impact of Einstein’s “scientific” thought. Both are perfect exemplars of the liberal arts approach to the world – that all learning—scientific and humanistic alike-- must be anchored in a deep sense of moral imagination, an appreciation for the vastness of our universe and the pose of humility such knowledge demands of us, and a willingness to continue to pursue the quest for all kinds of wisdom even in the face of the seemingly overwhelming nature of the task.

 

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Mark Huibregtse, The Class of 1964 Term Professorship of Mathematics and Computer Science

Essay on Einstein's Dreams

In a 1929 Saturday Evening Post interview, Albert Einstein said, "I am enough of the artist to draw freely upon my imagination.  Imagination is more important than knowledge.  Knowledge is limited.  Imagination encircles the world."  Alan Lightman's novel, Einstein's Dreams, is a splendid case in point.  The author leads us to imagine what life would be like in various alternative realities, and thereby to reflect on our own reality and sense(s) of time.  If you are like me, you found that certain of the alternative realities resonate with ways that we ourselves have experienced time -- for example, the sense that time is standing still, or, contrarily, that a large block of time has rushed by amazingly fast (one's high school years, perhaps?).  In a mysterious way, the investigation of how people might feel or behave in imaginary worlds helps us to understand how they actually do feel and behave in our own world.  (This reminds me of what has been called "the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics" -- the uncanny power that pure mathematical reasoning can have for comprehending physical reality.)

There is a great deal more that could be said about the book's exploration of human nature, and the beautiful, poetic writing.  Instead, I want to discuss a few things that jumped out at me as a mathematician who also studied a lot of physics in college.  These include an evocation of how Einstein worked, some images of relativistic phenomena, and the fundamental nature of time and space.

As you probably know, Einstein often used "gedankenexperiments," or thought experiments, in conducting his research.  The dreams presented in the novel are thought experiments through which the implications for human behavior of various models of time are explored.  Additionally, Einstein often thought in pictures, rather than in words or equations.  I was reminded of this by the exquisite prose poem on pp. 57-60, which invites us to "[i]magine a world in which there is no time.  Only images."

You may well have noticed that some of the imaginary worlds are metaphors for relativistic or quantum phenomena.  For example, the world in which "time passes more slowly for people in motion" (pp. 69-72) is indeed the world of special relativity, in which "moving clocks run slow."  The author explores what life might be like if this phenomenon were perceivable in everyday life.  Similarly, the world in which "time moves more slowly the farther from the center of the earth" (p. 22) is inspired by general relativity, in which space-time, and hence the speed of a clock, is distorted by mass.  On the other hand, the world in which time is the same everywhere (pp. 25-28) is the Newtonian universe, which exists in a three-dimensional Euclidean space with an "absolute time" running in the background.  (My Scribner Seminar, The Non-Euclidean Revolution, explores how the long-held belief in the Euclidean nature of the universe was shaken.) 

The novel confronts us with the mystery of time: is it an illusion, a substance, a dimension, or, as I recall from college physics, "what is measured on a clock"?  Is it continuous (like a flowing river) or discrete (like successive frames in a movie)?  Is it infinite or finite?  Perhaps we will learn the answers when the theory of quantum gravity is worked out by the physicists.  In the meantime, we can be grateful for Alan Lightman's splendid, moving demonstration of the power of imagination.

 

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Patrice Malatestinic, Lecturer of Music

In Einstein’s Dreams, Alan Lightman presents us with a fictional Einstein, who, by use of his keen creative intellect, synthesizes information gleaned from his dreams and observations to describe forces in the universe.  It is not so much his theories, but Lightman’s portrayal of Einstein’s process, that I find fascinating.

Bordering on obsessive, sacrificing the personal, overlooking conventional concerns for appearance, health, and family, Lightman’s Einstein devotes his energies to his work—not work at his patent job, but his life’s work. Though Einstein’s behaviors may look quite strange, Lightman’s readers can easily forgive his social oddities.  This is partly because of Einstein's acknowledged accomplishments and genius, but also because readers can relate to similar experiences of being thoroughly engaged in activities so compelling or enthralling that they too had lost all track of self and time.

Performers, artists, and athletes often refer to "being in the zone," losing themselves in the tune, or the scene, or the shot.  Dustin Hoffman told interviewer Terry Gross how his passionate dream to become a jazz pianist was backed up by years and years of serious practice hours logged toward his goal; it was not until his first acting class, however, where he actually lost all track of time in rehearsal, that Hoffman suddenly knew his calling.  From that experience of timelessness he knew acting was for him.  Piano had been great, but throughout his practicing, he’d always watched the clock.  Acting set him free from the oppression of time.

This kind of attention to personal rhythms and responses effectively informed Hoffman’s career choice, and my guess is Einstein likely possessed a similar internal compass.  Though fascinated by and curious about the physical, external world, he appears to have been motivated by an enormous and rich inner life. Lightman writes, “His dreams have taken hold of his research” (p. 5) and “he sneaks away from Mileva in the middle of the night and goes to the kitchen to calculate long pages of equations” (p. 41).  He seems to be searching for connection to something greater.  At one point he states, “I want to understand time because I want to get close to The Old One” (p. 40), suggesting a spiritual motivation behind his work.  Perhaps, when fully engaged in his mathematics, Einstein too finds joy in freedom from the oppression of time, and feels closer to something larger than himself.  When the work is completed, handed to the secretary for typing, Lightman writes, “He  [Einstein] feels empty" (p.140).  Perhaps this emptiness is similar to that which any participant feels the day after the high school musical closes, or the championship game is won, or the concert tour is ended.

People often ask, "what is your passion?" or advise you, as Joseph Campbell advised his college students, to "follow your bliss."  At those times, you might consciously turn to reflect on your personal experience of time and take notice of the qualities with which you have felt time pass.  How quickly or slowly has time moved for you in any given situation, and how might you use that determination as a tool?  For some, time stands still when mowing the lawn and flies by when performing Brahms; for others the reverse is true.  Developing a conscious awareness of one’s orientations to time might prove to be a lantern that lights one’s path.  And it would be oh so interesting if locating our own timelessness were the true purpose of time.

Click here to view 'Time' by Patrice Malatestinic (Digital reproduction - Collage: found images, acrylic and acrylic transfer on paper)

 

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Mary Crone Odekon, Professor of Physics

Response to Alan Lightman's Einstein's Dreams

I first dreamed about physics as a college sophomore after working late at night on a take-home exam.  How would the shape of atoms be different if we lived in a universe with a different number of dimensions?  And again on an exam the following semester: What, exactly, would happen if the strength of gravity suddenly doubled?

The dreams didn't withstand the light of day.  Not surprisingly, they did not make enough sense to actually contribute to exam responses.  But the mind seems to naturally dwell on "what if" questions.  In his Autobiographical Notes, Einstein recalls imagining, when he was sixteen, catching up with a beam of light and seeing it frozen in space.  This "thought experiment" turned out not to be true Einstein concluded that things cannot catch up with light.  How many other ideas did he consciously fantasize about and discard?  And how many more did he literally dream about?

Einstein's Dreams is neither nonfiction nor science fiction it does not explain relativity or the history of relativity, nor does it explore a detailed, self-consistent world different from our own.  The vignettes are not very fleshed out; what exactly do those people without memories know, so that they can read and write but not remember where they live?   Instead, it is a historical novel that, beyond the fun of guessing what Einstein might dream about (relationships, family, the city of Berne), provides a vision of how brainstorming fits into the scientific process.

Part of the process is recognizing that even crazy-sounding ideas might be true, so we must allow ourselves to fantasize freely.  Significantly, most of the scenarios in Einstein's Dreams do not reflect the notion of time that made it into his famous 1905 paper on special relativity.  Some relate to Einstein's later theory of general relativity, and some relate to modern speculation about quantum gravity and multiverses ... but most are not in the 1905 paper. Why not?  Because they did not fulfill Einstein's goal of a simple description consistent with electricity and magnetism.  Tools like mathematics, technical equipment, and experimental protocol have an important role here:  to weed out fabulous ideas if it turns out they don't work.

Some notions of time in Einstein's Dreams work beautifully, and made it into the 1905 paper.  We really do see time run more slowly for something moving past us, although this is difficult to notice unless the speed is extremely high.  Some of the countless measurements verifying this effect since 1905 involve particles called muons that normally transmute into other particles in about two microseconds, but that appear to last longer if they're rushing past us. In the 1960's, for example, David Frisch and James Smith saw that muons shooting in from space, and measured flying past Mount Washington in New Hampshire to a target in Cambridge, Massachusetts, lasted about ten times longer, consistent with the specific predictions in Einstein's paper.  So this particular fantasy about time not only helped explain mysteries in Einstein's day, but made predictions that have been verified since.

Despite Einstein's post-partum depression at the end of the novel, there is an exciting and liberating vision here, where we push our brains beyond the obvious into dreamlike fantasy, and then ruthlessly apply logic to select the best ideas.   (The "what if" mentality is so appealing that there is currently a bestseller with that very name by Randall Munroe, the author of xkcd.com.)  It's an inspiration not to hold back, and to take joy in the process.

 

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Bernie Possidente, Professor and Chair of Biology

Einstein, Schmeinstein

No one will be any closer to understanding Einstein’s theory after reading this book, which could have been written long before Einstein; the inclusion of Einstein just made it seem slightly less fictional. It reminds me of “Our Town” by Thornton Wilder, and Rod Serling’s “Twilight Zone,” with less innocence and character. “Our Town” was good fiction; “Twilight Zone” good television. Einstein’s Dreams was clever and amusing, but didn’t include any insights into either science or human nature.

These variations on the time theme don’t provide insight so much as belabor the obvious: our perception of time is linear; therefore any other experience of time would be novel from our perspective.  Moreover, we don’t need clever literary plot devices to experience time differently. We can screw with it whenever we want to:  fall asleep and dream our own dreams, take LSD, undergo five days of sleep deprivation, practice Buddhist meditation, or talk to someone with Alzheimer’s or schizophrenia.

Einstein’s theory of relativity is irrelevant to human perception of time, because it applies as much to a rock, quasar or turtle as it does to a human. Perception of time is an evolved trait that is relative to variation in biological form and function, not physics. Some insects see ultraviolet light while animals typically don’t, but the physics of electromagnetic radiation didn’t change when insects and animals evolved. Time is independent of our perception of it, so while this book may be fun to read, it is a scientific dead end if the point is scientific literacy.

A more fundamental question is to ask how humans perceive anything, and what is the relationship of perception to existence? That would be an interesting interdisciplinary boundary to explore, and some noteworthy books, for instance Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, Thomas Pynchon's Gravity’s Rainbow, or Jack Kerouac’s On the Road also play with the flow of time, but they get so much more mileage out of it by challenging us to make sense of our own existence as well as the world we exist in.

We need science because, as the biologist JBS Haldane said, “The world is not only stranger than we think, it’s stranger than we can think.”  But we need the humanities just as much because dividing the sciences from the humanities is a reductionistic trick: we don’t really know what is “human” vs. “natural,” or which term in “human nature” is the redundant one. Most scientists view time as a function of matter and energy. It seems just as logical, however, to think of matter, energy and time as a function of mind. The issue may be as misleading as the biological riddle about the chicken or the egg- a variant of which is “nature vs. nurture.”  A new field of biology called “epigenetics” has the potential to resolve the nature vs. nurture issue. What new ideas in physics have the potential to resolve the paradoxes of mind, matter and time?

 

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