Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

13 MAY, 2015

The Magic of Moss and What It Teaches Us About the Art of Attentiveness to Life at All Scales


“Life [exists] only because of a myriad of synchronicities that bring us to this particular place at this particular moment. In return for such a gift, the only sane response is to glitter in reply.”

“Attention without feeling,” Mary Oliver observed in her magnificent memoir of love and loss, “is only a report.” In Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses (public library) — an extraordinary celebration of smallness and the grandeur of life, as humble yet surprisingly magical as its subject — botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer extends an uncommon and infectious invitation to drink in the vibrancy of life at all scales and attend to our world with befitting vibrancy of feeling.

One of the world’s foremost bryologists, Kimmerer is a scientist blessed with the rare privilege of belonging to a long lineage of storytellers — her family comes from the Bear Clan of the Potawatomi. There is a special commonality between her heritage and her scientific training — a profound respect for all life forms, whatever their size — coupled with a special talent for rendering that respect contagious, which places her prose in the same taxon as Mary Oliver and Annie Dillard and Thoreau. Indeed, if Thoreau was a poet and philosopher who became a de facto naturalist by the sheer force of poetic observation, despite having no formal training in science, Kimmerer is a formally trained scientist whose powers of poetic observation and contemplative reflection render her a de facto poet and philosopher. (So bewitching is her book, in fact, that it inspired Elizabeth Gilbert’s beautiful novel The Signature of All Things, which is how I first became aware of Kimmerer’s mossy masterwork.)

Moss and air plant sculpture by Art We Heart

Mosses, to be sure, are scientifically impressive beyond measure — the amphibians of vegetation, they were the first plants to emerge from the ocean and conquer the land; they number some 22,000 species, whose tremendous range of size parallels the height disparity between a blueberry bush and a redwood; they inhabit nearly every ecosystem on earth and grow in places as diverse as the branch of an oak and the back of a beetle. But beyond their scientific notoriety, mosses possess a kind of lyrical splendor that Kimmerer unravels with enchanting elegance — splendor that has to do with what these tiny organisms teach us about the art of seeing.

She uses the experience of flying — an experience so common we’ve come to take its miraculousness for granted — to illustrate our all too human solipsism:

Between takeoff and landing, we are each in suspended animation, a pause between chapters of our lives. When we stare out the window into the sun’s glare, the landscape is only a flat projection with mountain ranges reduced to wrinkles in the continental skin. Oblivious to our passage overhead, other stories are unfolding beneath us. Blackberries ripen in the August sun; a woman packs a suitcase and hesitates at her doorway; a letter is opened and the most surprising photograph slides from between the pages. But we are moving too fast and we are too far away; all the stories escape us, except our own.

Illustration by Peter Sís from 'The Pilot and the Little Prince.' Click image for details.

We, of course, need not rise to the skies in order to fall into the chronic patterns of our myopia and miss most of what is going on around us — we do this even in the familiar microcosm of a city block. Kimmerer considers how our growing powers of technologically aided observation have contributed to our diminished attentiveness:

We poor myopic humans, with neither the raptor’s gift of long-distance acuity, nor the talents of a housefly for panoramic vision. However, with our big brains, we are at least aware of the limits of our vision. With a degree of humility rare in our species, we acknowledge there is much we can’t see, and so contrive remarkable ways to observe the world. Infrared satellite imagery, optical telescopes, and the Hubble space telescope bring vastness within our visual sphere. Electron microscopes let us wander the remote universe of our own cells. But at the middle scale, that of the unaided eye, our senses seem to be strangely dulled. With sophisticated technology, we strive to see what is beyond us, but are often blind to the myriad sparkling facets that lie so close at hand. We think we’re seeing when we’ve only scratched the surface. Our acuity at this middle scale seems diminished, not by any failing of the eyes, but by the willingness of the mind. Has the power of our devices led us to distrust our unaided eyes? Or have we become dismissive of what takes no technology but only time and patience to perceive? Attentiveness alone can rival the most powerful magnifying lens.

5,500-year-old Antarctic moss. Photograph by Rachel Sussman from 'The Oldest Living Things in the World.' Click image for details.

But the rewards of attentiveness can’t be forced into manifesting — rather, they are surrendered to. In a sentiment that calls to mind Rebecca Solnit’s spectacular essay on how we find ourselves by getting lost, Kimmerer writes:

A Cheyenne elder of my acquaintance once told me that the best way to find something is not to go looking for it. This is a hard concept for a scientist. But he said to watch out of the corner of your eye, open to possibility, and what you seek will be revealed. The revelation of suddenly seeing what I was blind to only moments before is a sublime experience for me. I can revisit those moments and still feel the surge of expansion. The boundaries between my world and the world of another being get pushed back with sudden clarity an experience both humbling and joyful.


Mosses and other small beings issue an invitation to dwell for a time right at the limits of ordinary perception. All it requires of us is attentiveness. Look in a certain way and a whole new world can be revealed.


Learning to see mosses is more like listening than looking. A cursory glance will not do it. Starting to hear a faraway voice or catch a nuance in the quiet subtext of a conversation requires attentiveness, a filtering of all the noise, to catch the music. Mosses are not elevator music; they are the intertwined threads of a Beethoven quartet.

Echoing Richard Feynman’s iconic monologue on knowledge and mystery, Kimmerer adds:

Knowing the fractal geometry of an individual snowflake makes the winter landscape even more of a marvel. Knowing the mosses enriches our knowing of the world.

Moss and air plant sculpture by Art We Heart

This knowing, at its most intimate, is a function of naming — for words are how we come to know meanings. Kimmerer considers this delicate dialogue between a thing’s essence and its name:

Having words for these forms makes the differences between them so much more obvious. With words at your disposal, you can see more clearly. Finding the words is another step in learning to see.


Having the words also creates an intimacy with the plant that speaks of careful observation.


Intimacy gives us a different way of seeing, when visual acuity is not enough.

The remarkable diversity of moss varieties known and named only adds to the potentiality for intimacy with the world at all scales. But among this vast multiplicity of mosses is one particular species inhabiting the small caves carved by glaciers into the lakeshore, which alone embodies immense wisdom about the mystery and meaning of life. Kimmerer writes:

Schistostega pennata, the Goblins’ Gold, is unlike any other moss. It is a paragon of minimalism, simple in means, rich in ends. So simple you might not recognize it as a moss at all. The more typical mosses on the bank outside spread themselves to meet the sun. Such robust leaves and shoots, though tiny, require a substantial amount of solar energy to build and maintain. They are costly in solar currency. Some mosses need full sun to survive, others favor the diffuse light of clouds, while Schistostega lives on the clouds’ silver lining alone.

Goblins' Gold (Photograph: Matt Goff)

This singular species subsists solely on the light reflections emanating from the lake’s surface, which provide one-tenth of one percent of the solar energy that direct sunlight does. And yet in this unlikely habitat, Schistostega has emerged as a most miraculous jewel of life:

The shimmering presence of Schistostega is created entirely by the weft of nearly invisible threads crisscrossing the surface of the moist soil. It glows in the dark, or rather it glitters in the half light of places which scarcely feel the sun.

Each filament is a strand of individual cells strung together like beads shimmering on a string. The walls of each cell are angled, forming interior facets like a cut diamond. It is these facets which cause Schistostega to sparkle like the tiny lights of a far-away city. These beautifully angled walls capture traces of light and focus it inward, where a single large chloroplast awaits the gathering beam of light. Packed with chlorophyll ad membranes of exquisite complexity, the chloroplast converts the light energy into a stream of flowing electrons. This is the electricity of photosynthesis, turning sun into sugar, spinning straw into gold.

But more than a biological marvel, Schistostega presents a parable of patience and its bountiful rewards — an allegory for meeting the world not with grandiose entitlement but with boundless generosity of spirit; for taking whatever it has to offer and giving back an infinity more. Kimmerer writes:

Rain on the outside, fire on the inside. I feel a kinship with this being whose cold light is so different from my own. It asks very little from the world and yet glitters in response.


Timing is everything. Just for a moment, in the pause before the earth rotates again into night, the cave is flooded with light. The near-nothingness of Schistostega erupts in a shower of sparkles, like green glitter spilled on the rug at Christmas… And then, within minutes, it’s gone. All its needs are met in an ephemeral moment at the end of the day when the sun aligns with the mouth of the cave… Each shoot is shaped like a feather, flat and delicate. The soft blue green fronds stand up like a glad of translucent ferns, tracking the path of the sun. It is so little. And yet it is enough.

This tiny moss is a master of “the patient gleaming of light” — and what is the greatest feat of the human spirit, the measure of a life well lived, if not a “patient gleaming of light”? Annie Dillard knew this when she wrote: “I cannot cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam.” And Carl Jung knew it when we insisted that “the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.” The humble, generous Schistostega illuminates the darkness of mere being into blazing awe at the miracle of life itself — a reminder that our existence on this unremarkable rock orbiting an unremarkable star is a glorious cosmic accident, the acute awareness of which calls to mind poet Mark Strand’s memorable words: “It’s such a lucky accident, having been born, that we’re almost obliged to pay attention.”

To pay attention, indeed, is the ultimate celebration of this accidental miracle of life. Kimmerer captures this with exuberant elegance:

The combination of circumstances which allows it to exist at all are so implausible that the Schistostega is rendered much more precious than gold. Goblins’ or otherwise. Not only does its presence depend on the coincidence of the cave’s angle to the sun, but if the hills on the western shore were any higher the sun would set before reaching the cave… Its life and ours exist only because of a myriad of synchronicities that bring us to this particular place at this particular moment. In return for such a gift, the only sane response is to glitter in reply.

Gathering Moss is a glittering read in its entirety. Complement it with Annie Dillard on the art of seeing and the two ways of looking.

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12 MAY, 2015

Bright Sky, Starry City: An Illustrated Love Letter to Our Communion with the Cosmos, Celebrating Women Astronomers


A warm and wonderful ode to the universe for the modern urban astronomer.

When trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell began teaching at Vassar in the 1860s, where she was the only woman on the faculty, the university’s official handbook forbade female students from going outside after dark — a dictum of obvious absurdity in the context of teaching astronomy. Although the rule was overturned and Mitchell went on to pave the way for women in science, a century and a half later a different civilizational absurdity obstructs aspiring astronomers of any gender — light pollution in cities is making it increasingly difficult to peer into the starry sky and take, to paraphrase Ptolemy, our fill of cosmic ambrosia.

In Bright Sky, Starry City (public library), author Uma Krishnaswami and illustrator Aimée Sicuro take on both of these issues — the expanding horizons for women in astronomy, the modern constrictions of light pollution — with great warmth and wonderment for the eternal allure of communing with the cosmos, of feeling our tininess and the enormity of life all at once, by the simple act of looking out into the glimmering grandeur of space.

This is the story of Phoebe, a little girl whose father owns a telescope shop in a bustling city. Enchanted by the planets, Phoebe likes to draw the Solar System on the sidewalk outside her dad’s store. One particularly exciting day, when Saturn and Mars are expected to appear in the sky that night, Phoebe worries that the city lights, which “always turned the night sky gray and dull,” would render her beloved planets invisible.

Just as she closes her eyes and wishes those dreadful urban lights away, another obstacle emerges — a mighty storm sets in, so Phoebe and her dad pack in their telescopes and retreat indoors.

But as they sit in the store and the wind rages outside, Phoebe’s wish is miraculously granted — the storm shuts down the city’s power grid and, if only for a little while, all the lights go out just as the sky clears of clouds.

Above the newly washed city,
with the power still out,
glowing, sparkling, gleaming lights
painted the night — some faint, some brilliant,
some clustered together
and some scattering fiercely
through the inky darkness.

And then, suddenly, they appear — Saturn and Mars, “right where they should be.”

People milled around,
talking, pointing, laughing, looking
all at once, all together
under the stars.

A nonfiction postscript offers a pithy primer on the Solar System, making the story a fine addition to these intelligent and imaginative children’s books celebrating science.

Bright Sky, Starry City comes from Canadian indie powerhouse Groundwood Books, who have previously celebrated the history of astronomy with the wonderful picture-book biography of Ibn Sina and have given us such thoughtful treasures as a Sidewalk Flowers and Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress.

Complement this particular astro-treat with You Are Stardust, which teaches kids about the universe in breathtaking dioramas, then revisit of story of how Galileo’s astronomy influenced Shakespeare.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

11 MAY, 2015

Richard Feynman on Science vs. Religion and Why Uncertainty Is Central to Morality


“It is impossible to find an answer which someday will not be found to be wrong.”

“If we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from,” Carl Sagan wrote in his timeless treatise on science and spirituality, “we will have failed.” Perhaps because, as Krista Tippett has astutely observed, science and religion “ask different kinds of questions altogether, probing and illuminating in ways neither could alone,” some of humanity’s greatest scientific minds have contemplated the relationship between these two modes of inquiry — Galileo in his legendary letter to the Duchess of Tuscany; Ada Lovelace in her meditation on the interconnectedness of everything; Einstein in his answer to little girl’s question about whether scientists pray; Jane Goodall in her poetic take on science and spirit; Sam Harris in his elegant case for spirituality without religion; and physicist Margaret Wertheim in turning to Dante for an answer.

Among the tireless investigators of this duality is legendary physicist and science-storyteller Richard Feynman (May 11, 1918–February 15, 1988), who explores this very inquiry in the final essay in The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman (public library) — the same spectacular compendium that gave us the Great Explainer on good, evil, and the Zen of science, the universal responsibility of scientists, and the meaning of life.

Feynman writes:

I do not believe that science can disprove the existence of God; I think that is impossible. And if it is impossible, is not a belief in science and in a God — an ordinary God of religion — a consistent possibility?

Yes, it is consistent. Despite the fact that I said that more than half of the scientists don’t believe in God, many scientists do believe in both science and God, in a perfectly consistent way. But this consistency, although possible, is not easy to attain, and I would like to try to discuss two things: Why it is not easy to attain, and whether it is worth attempting to attain it.

Clarifying that by “God” he means the personal deity typical of Western religions, “to whom you pray and who has something to do with creating the universe and guiding you in morals,” Feynman considers the key difficulties in reconciling the scientific worldview with the religious one. Building on his assertion that the universal responsibility of the scientist is to remain immersed in “ignorance and doubt and uncertainty,” he points out that the centrality of uncertainty in science is incompatible with the unconditional faith required by religion:

It is imperative in science to doubt; it is absolutely necessary, for progress in science, to have uncertainty as a fundamental part of your inner nature. To make progress in understanding, we must remain modest and allow that we do not know. Nothing is certain or proved beyond all doubt. You investigate for curiosity, because it is unknown, not because you know the answer. And as you develop more information in the sciences, it is not that you are finding out the truth, but that you are finding out that this or that is more or less likely.

That is, if we investigate further, we find that the statements of science are not of what is true and what is not true, but statements of what is known to different degrees of certainty… Every one of the concepts of science is on a scale graduated somewhere between, but at neither end of, absolute falsity or absolute truth.

Piece from Richard Feynman's little-known sketches, edited by his daughter. Click image for more.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Wendell Berry on the wisdom of ignorance, Feynman adds:

It is necessary, I believe, to accept this idea, not only for science, but also for other things; it is of great value to acknowledge ignorance. It is a fact that when we make decisions in our life, we don’t necessarily know that we are making them correctly; we only think that we are doing the best we can — and that is what we should do.

Befriending uncertainty, Feynman argues, becomes a habit of mind that automates thought to a point of no longer being able to retreat from doubt’s inquiry. The question then changes from the binary “Is there God?” to the degrees-of-certainty ponderation “How sure is it that there is a God?” He writes:

This very subtle change is a great stroke and represents a parting of the ways between science and religion. I do not believe a real scientist can ever believe in the same way again. Although there are scientists who believe in God, I do not believe that they think of God in the same way as religious people do… I do not believe that a scientist can ever obtain that view — that really religious understanding, that real knowledge that there is a God — that absolute certainty which religious people have.

A 1573 painting by Portuguese artist, historian, and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student of Michelangelo's, from Michael Benson's book 'Cosmigraphics'—a visual history of understanding the universe. Click image for more.

A believing scientist, then, is one from whom the degree of certainty outweighs but doesn’t displace the degree of doubt — in the scientist, unlike in the religious person, doubt remains a parallel presence with any element of faith. Feynman illustrates this sliding scale of uncertainty by putting our human existence in cosmic perspective:

The size of the universe is very impressive, with us on a tiny particle whirling around the sun, among a hundred thousand million suns in this galaxy, itself among a billion galaxies… Man is a latecomer in a vast evolving drama; can the rest be but a scaffolding for his creation?

Yet again, there are the atoms of which all appears to be constructed, following immutable laws. Nothing can escape it; the stars are made of the same stuff, and the animals are made of the same stuff, but in such complexity as to mysteriously appear alive — like man himself.

With an eye to the immutable mystery at the heart of all knowledge — something Feynman memorably explored in his now-iconic ode to a flower — he adds:

It is a great adventure to contemplate the universe beyond man, to think of what it means without man — as it was for the great part of its long history, and as it is in the great majority of places. When this objective view is finally attained, and the mystery and majesty of matter are appreciated, to then turn the objective eye back on man viewed as matter, to see life as part of the universal mystery of greatest depth, is to sense an experience which is rarely described. It usually ends in laughter, delight in the futility of trying to understand. These scientific views end in awe and mystery, lost at the edge in uncertainty, but they appear to be so deep and so impressive that the theory that it is all arranged simply as a stage for God to watch man’s struggle for good and evil seems to be inadequate.

But even if one comes to doubt the factuality of divinity itself, Feynman argues that religious myths remain a valuable moral compass, the basic ethical tenets of which can be applied to life independently of the religious dogma:

In the end, it is possible to doubt the divinity of Christ, and yet to believe firmly that it is a good thing to do unto your neighbor as you would have him do unto you. It is possible to have both these views at the same time; and I would say that I hope you will find that my atheistic scientific colleagues often carry themselves well in society.

Having grown up in communist Bulgaria — a culture where blind nonbelief was as dogmatically mandated by the government as blind belief is by the church elsewhere — I find Feynman’s thoughts on the dogma of atheism particularly insightful:

The communist views are the antithesis of the scientific, in the sense that in communism the answers are given to all the questions — political questions as well as moral ones — without discussion and without doubt. The scientific viewpoint is the exact opposite of this; that is, all questions must be doubted and discussed; we must argue everything out — observe things, check them, and so change them. The democratic government is much closer to this idea, because there is discussion and a chance of modification. One doesn’t launch the ship in a definite direction. It is true that if you have a tyranny of ideas, so that you know exactly what has to be true, you act very decisively, and it looks good — for a while. But soon the ship is heading in the wrong direction, and no one can modify the direction anymore. So the uncertainties of life in a democracy are, I think, much more consistent with science.

He revisits the ethical aspect of religion — its commitment to guiding us toward a more moral life — and its interplay with our human fallibility:

We know that, even with moral values granted, human beings are very weak; they must be reminded of the moral values in order that they may be able to follow their consciences. It is not simply a matter of having a right conscience; it is also a question of maintaining strength to do what you know is right. And it is necessary that religion give strength and comfort and the inspiration to follow these moral views. This is the inspirational aspect of religion. It gives inspiration not only for moral conduct — it gives inspiration for the arts and for all kinds of great thoughts and actions as well.

Noting that all three aspects of religion — metaphysical divinity, morality, and inspiration — are interconnected and that “to attack one feature of the system is to attack the whole structure,” Feynman zeroes in on the inescapable conflict between the empirical findings of science and the metaphysical myths of faith:

The result … is a retreat of the religious metaphysical view, but nevertheless, there is no collapse of the religion. And further, there seems to be no appreciable or fundamental change in the moral view.

After all, the earth moves around the sun — isn’t it best to turn the other cheek? Does it make any difference whether the earth is standing still or moving around the sun?


In my opinion, it is not possible for religion to find a set of metaphysical ideas which will be guaranteed not to get into conflicts with an ever-advancing and always-changing science which is going into an unknown. We don’t know how to answer the questions; it is impossible to find an answer which someday will not be found to be wrong. The difficulty arises because science and religion are both trying to answer questions in the same realm here.

On the other hand, I don’t believe that a real conflict with science will arise in the ethical aspect, because I believe that moral questions are outside of the scientific realm.

Another 16th-century painting by Francisco de Holanda from 'Cosmigraphics.'Click image for more.

And so we get to the most enduring challenge — the fact that, in Tippett’s words, “how we ask our questions affects the answers we arrive at.” Arguing that science isn’t aimed at the foundations of morality, Feynman writes:

The typical human problem, and one whose answer religion aims to supply, is always of the following form: Should I do this? Should we do this? Should the government do this? To answer this question we can resolve it into two parts: First — If I do this, what will happen? — and second — Do I want that to happen? What would come of it of value — of good?

Now a question of the form: If I do this, what will happen? is strictly scientific. As a matter of fact, science can be defined as a method for, and a body of information obtained by, trying to answer only questions which can be put into the form: If I do this, what will happen? The technique of it, fundamentally, is: Try it and see. Then you put together a large amount of information from such experiences. All scientists will agree that a question — any question, philosophical or other — which cannot be put into the form that can be tested by experiment … is not a scientific question; it is outside the realm of science.

I claim that whether you want something to happen or not — what value there is in the result, and how you judge the value of the result (which is the other end of the question: Should I do this?), must lie outside of science because it is not a question that you can answer only by knowing what happens; you still have to judge what happens — in a moral way. So, for this theoretical reason I think that there is a complete consistency between the moral view — or the ethical aspect of religion — and scientific information.

But therein lies the central friction — because of the interconnectedness of all three parts of religion, doubt about the metaphysical aspect invariably chips away at the authority of the moral and inspirational aspects, which are fueled by the believer’s emotional investment in the divine component. Feynman writes:

Emotional ties to the moral code … begin to be severely weakened when doubt, even a small amount of doubt, is expressed as to the existence of God; so when the belief in God becomes uncertain, this particular method of obtaining inspiration fails.

He concludes, appropriately, like a scientist rather than a dogmatist — by framing the right questions rather than asserting the right answers:

I don’t know the answer to this central problem — the problem of maintaining the real value of religion, as a source of strength and of courage to most [people], while, at the same time, not requiring an absolute faith in the metaphysical aspects.

Western civilization, it seems to me, stands by two great heritages. One is the scientific spirit of adventure–the adventure into the unknown, an unknown which must be recognized as being unknown in order to be explored; the demand that the unanswerable mysteries of the universe remain unanswered; the attitude that all is uncertain; to summarize it — the humility of the intellect. The other great heritage is Christian ethics — the basis of action on love, the brotherhood of all men, the value of the individual — the humility of the spirit.

These two heritages are logically, thoroughly consistent. But logic is not all; one needs one’s heart to follow an idea. If people are going back to religion, what are they going back to? Is the modern church a place to give comfort to a man who doubts God — more, one who disbelieves in God? Is the modern church a place to give comfort and encouragement to the value of such doubts? So far, have we not drawn strength and comfort to maintain the one or the other of these consistent heritages in a way which attacks the values of the other? Is this unavoidable? How can we draw inspiration to support these two pillars of Western civilization so that they may stand together in full vigor, mutually unafraid? Is this not the central problem of our time?

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out is a trove of the Great Explainer’s wisdom on everything from education to integrity to the value of science as a way of life. Complement it with Feynman on why everything is connected to everything else, how his father taught him about the most important thing, and his little-known drawings, then revisit Alan Lightman — a Great Explainer for our day — on science and the divinity of the unknowable.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

07 MAY, 2015

Einstein, Gödel, and Our Strange Experience of Time: Rebecca Goldstein on How Relativity Rattled the Flow of Existence


“Is there anything we know more intimately than the fleetingness of time, the transience of each and every moment?”

“An hour, once it lodges in the queer element of the human spirit, may be stretched to fifty or a hundred times its clock length,” Virginia Woolf marveled at the extraordinary elasticity of how we experience time, which modern psychologists are only beginning to fathom. Nearly a century later, Sarah Manguso — a Woolf of our own — tussled with the same perplexity in contemplating the pleasures and perils of time’s inevitable ongoingness. And yet however convincing our intuitive sense that time is a mutable abstraction shaped by the subjective grab-bag of attributes and experiences we call the self, there remains the empirical nature of time as a measurable, observable, concrete dimension of reality — and the rift between these two conceptions of time is one of the most disorienting yet fascinating aspects of existence.

In the altogether spectacular Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel (public library), philosopher Rebecca Goldstein — who has also explored the most intimate facet of our confounding relationship with time, the mystery of what makes you and your childhood self the same person — chronicles how the emergence of modern physics in the twentieth century, particularly Einstein’s theory of relativity, rattled our intuitive notions of time as a subjective experience.

Einstein and Gödel on one of their regular walks in Princeton, New Jersey.

Goldstein examines the immutable incompleteness of our understanding of time, which preoccupied both Gödel and Einstein:

Despite the popular distortions, to a certain extent encouraged by the vague suggestions of the word “relativity,” Einstein was … as far from interpreting his famous theory in subjective terms as it is possible to be. On the contrary, on his interpretation, relativity theory offers a realist description of time that is startlingly distinct from our subjective theory of time. The great yawning chasm between the “out yonder” and the “in here” is stretched even wider, on the Einsteinian hypothesis, since objective time — the time that is described in the equations of relativity theory — is lacking the very feature that seems to provide the essential stab to our subjective experience of time: its inexorable flow, ultimately lighting all our yesterdays the way to dusty death. Is there anything we know more intimately than the fleetingness of time, the transience of each and every moment?

And yet, Goldstein points out, Einstein’s physics actually counters rather than confirming this intuitive subjectivity of the human experience of time:

The nature of reality that spills forth from Einstein’s physics is so much more startling than the simplistic, undergraduate-beloved shibboleth: everything is relative to subjective points of view. In Einstein’s physics, there is no passage of time, no unidirectional flow from the fixed past and toward the uncertain future. The temporal component of space-time is as static as its spatial components; physical time is as still as physical space. It is all laid out, the whole spread of events, in the tenseless four-dimensional space-time manifold.

Illustration for 'Alice in Wonderland' by Lisbeth Zwerger. Click image for more.

Time, then, becomes not an attribute of the outer world — the universal “out yonder” — but an orienteering compass for the inner world. (One is reminded of Henry Miller’s meditation on the art of living: “On how one orients himself to the moment depends the failure or fruitfulness of it.”) Goldstein captures this beautifully:

The distinctions we make between the past and the present and the future — distinctions which are so emotionally fraught and without which we can’t even begin to describe our inner worlds — only have relevance within those inner worlds. Objective time, as it is characterized in relativity, can’t support the distinction between the past and the present and the future. Or, as Einstein told [philosopher and Vienna Circle member] Rudolf Carnap, “the experience of the now means something special for man, something essentially different from the past and the future, but this important difference does not and cannot occur within physics.”

Einstein himself articulated this with piercing precision in a condolence letter to the widow of his longtime friend, the physicist Michele Besso:

In quitting this strange world he has once again preceded me by just a little. That doesn’t mean anything. For us convinced physicists the distinction between the past, the present, and the future is only an illusion, albeit a persistent one.

Discus chronologicus, a depiction of time from the early 1720s, found in 'Cartographies of Time.' Click image for more.

Ultimately, these illusions are the direct result of the stories we buy into, which are in turn a direct result of the power structures that purvey the stories we call truth. In that sense, they are, after all, not absolute but relative to the baseline of our manufactured beliefs. Goldstein observes the general dynamics of which our time theories are but a particular symptom:

The necessary incompleteness of even our formal systems of thought demonstrates that there is no nonshifting foundation on which any system rests. All truths — even those that had seemed so certain as to be immune to the very possibility of revision — are essentially manufactured. Indeed the very notion of the objectively true is a socially constructed myth. Our knowing minds are not embedded in truth. Rather the entire notion of truth is embedded in our minds, which are themselves the unwitting lackeys of organizational forms of influence.

Incompleteness is a completely mind-stretching read in its entirety. Complement it with Goldstein on the paradox of personal identity, Thomas Mann on how time confers meaning upon existence, and the psychology of why different experiences warp our sense of time.

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