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Einstein’s Dreams: Physicist Alan Lightman’s Poetic Exploration of Time and the Antidote to the Anxiety of Aliveness

“A life in the past cannot be shared with the present. Each person who gets stuck in time gets stuck alone.”

Einstein’s Dreams: Physicist Alan Lightman’s Poetic Exploration of Time and the Antidote to the Anxiety of Aliveness

“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 life-time, 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 composing 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 had formulated the ultimate declaration of our temporal creatureliness, declaring: “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 chronologicus — a German depiction of time from the early 1720s, included in Cartographies of Time. (Available as a print and as a wall clock.)

The young clerk at the Bern 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; rather, Einstein was thinking of time as a plaything of mathematics, the cold clay of an impartial universe in which we ourselves are playthings of chance.

Or was he?

After all, a revolution in understanding time is a revolution in understanding ourselves as creatures of time, and no human being — not even the most abstract-minded physicist — can think about time without thinking about what it means to be human, to be 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, a book that does for time what Alain de Botton’s The Course of Love does for love: punctuating a fictional world with philosophical quickenings, thought experiments, lyrical reflections on a fundamental human dimension of the real world.

The young Einstein, overworked and burning with ideas, 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 works differently. Each betokens a particular manifestation of our time-anxiety, that defining anxiety of our lives — each a particular tapestry of our hopes, fears, and other flights from the only reality we have and only place we really 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 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 any one 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:

Where the two times meet, desperation. Where the two times go their separate ways, contentment. For, miraculously, a barrister, a nurse, a baker can make a world in either time, but not in both times. Each time is true, but the truths are not the same.

Another dream draws on the real 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 great concession in letting time reign, in Nina Simone’s soulful words, as “the great dictator.” Lightman writes:

Long ago, before the Great Clock, time was measured by changes in heavenly bodies: the slow sweep of stars across the night sky, the arc of the sun and variation in light, the waxing and waning of the moon, tides, seasons. Time was measured also by heartbeats, the rhythms of drowsiness and sleep, the recurrence of hunger, the menstrual cycles of women, the duration of loneliness. Then, in a small town in Italy, the first mechanical clock was built. People were spellbound. Later they were horrified. Here was a human invention that quantified the passage of time, that laid ruler and compass to the span of desire, that measured out exactly the moments of a life. It was magical, it was unbearable, it was outside natural law. Yet the clock could not be ignored. It would have to be worshipped. The inventor was persuaded to build the Great Clock. Afterwards, he was killed and all other clocks were destroyed. Then the pilgrimages began.

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, 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.

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

Some say it is best not to go near the center of time. Life is a vessel of sadness, but it is noble to live life, and without time there is no life. Others disagree. They would rather have an eternity of contentment, even if that eternity were fixed and frozen, like a butterfly mounted in a case.

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:

In a world without future, each parting of friends is a death. In a world without future, each loneliness is final. In a world without future, each laugh is the last laugh. In a world without future, beyond the present lies nothingness, and people cling to the present as if hanging from a cliff.

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

This is a world in which time is not fluid, parting to make way for events. Instead, time is a rigid, bonelike structure, extending infinitely ahead and behind, fossilizing the future as well as the past. Every action, every thought, every breath of wind, every flight of birds is completely determined, forever… In a world of fixed future, life is an infinite corridor of rooms, one room lit at each moment, the next room dark but prepared. We walk from room to room, look into the room that is lit, the present moment, then walk on. We do not know the rooms ahead, but we know we cannot change them. We are spectators of our lives.

Then there is the opposite of the opposite, in which the past — that sole solidity of the real world — is unfixed, unvoided of possibility. In that world, a middle-aged man has spent his life trapped in a 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 a different person altogether. (Isn’t this the great dream of therapy, the great gift of healing — the dream of self-revision?) From this imaginary world, as from all the rest, Lightman wrests a reflection on the real world, lucid and lyrical:

What is the past? Could it be, the firmness of the past is just illusion? Could the past be a kaleidoscope, a pattern of images that shift with each disturbance of a sudden breeze, a laugh, a thought? And if the shift is everywhere, how would we know?

[…]

In a world of shifting past, these memories are wheat in wind, fleeting dreams, shapes in clouds. Events, once happened, lose reality, alter with a glance, a storm, a night. In time, the past never happened. But who could know? Who could know that the past is not as solid as this instant, when the sun streams over the Bernese Alps and the shopkeepers sing as they raise their awnings and the quarryman begins to load his truck.

Vanish by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

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 particularly terrifies me:

In this world time is not continuous. In this world time is discontinuous. Time is a stretch of nerve fibers: seemingly continuous from a distance but disjointed close up, with microscopic gaps between fibers. Nervous action flows through one segment of time, abruptly stops, pauses, leaps through a vacuum, and resumes in the neighboring segment. So tiny are the disconnections in time that a single second would have to be magnified and dissected into one thousand parts and each of those parts into one thousand parts before a single missing part of time could be spotted.

So tiny are the disconnections in time that the gaps between segments are practically imperceptible. After each restart of time, the new world looks just like the old. The positions and motions of clouds appear exactly the same, the trajectories of birds, the flow of conversations, thoughts.

The segments of time fit together almost perfectly, but not quite perfectly. On occasion, very slight displacements occur. For example, on this Tuesday in Berne, a young man and a young woman, in their late twenties, stand beneath a street lamp on Gerberngasse. They met one month ago. He loves her desperately, but he has already been crushed by a woman who left him without warning, and he is frightened of love. He must be sure with this woman. He studies her face, pleads silently for her true feelings, searches for the smallest sign, the slightest movement of her brow, the vaguest reddening of her cheeks, the moistness of her eyes.

In truth, she loves him back, but she cannot put her love in words. Instead, she smiles at him, unaware of his fear. As they stand beneath the street lamp, time stops and restarts. Afterwards, 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 dim thought has appeared that was not there before. The young woman reaches for this new thought, into 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 that he cannot see her again, returns to his small apartment on Zeughausgasse, decides to move to Zürich and work in his uncle’s bank. The young woman walks slowly home from the lamppost on Gerberngasse and wonders why the young man did not love her.

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

This world might also be the incubus of Lightman’s uncommon insight into our longing for absolutes in a relative world and what actually gives meaning to our temporal lives — ideas contoured in Einstein’s Dreams, which he would shade in over the course of 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 to a particular point in life. There is no shared stream of present in this world — only islands of neighboring solitudes, each suspended in a different moment of a different past:

The tragedy of this world is that no one is happy, whether stuck in a time of pain or of 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, 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 own 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 eternity. It 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 historic 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.”

The November meteors, observed between midnight and 5 A.M. on  November 13-14, 1868
Meteors by Étienne Léopold Trouvelot. (Available as a print, as stationery cards, and as a face mask.)

This intimation is what Einstein’s Dream leaves lingering in the deliciously discomposed mind. In the last world, which the dreamt-up Einstein dreams up in the first week of summer, time is a flock of nightingales. People race to capture under bell jars, and mostly fail. Only children have the energy and speed to catch the birds, but children have no desire to catch them, for time is already moving too sluggishly for them, each summer month already 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 — eventually, they discover that life itself is a warm-blooded creature, pulsating with the flow of time:

They savor the precise placement of family and friends, the facial expressions, the trapped happiness over a prize or a birth or romance, the captured smell of cinnamon or white double violets. The catchers delight in the moment so frozen but soon discover that the nightingale expires, its clear, flutelike song diminishes to silence, the trapped moment grows withered and without life.

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

BP

Bob Dylan on Vulnerability, the Meaning of Integrity, and Music as an Instrument of Truth

“You must be vulnerable to be sensitive to reality. And to me being vulnerable is just another way of saying that one has nothing more to lose.”

Bob Dylan on Vulnerability, the Meaning of Integrity, and Music as an Instrument of Truth

Self-knowledge might be the most difficult of life’s rewards — the hardest to earn and the hardest to bear. To know yourself is to know that you are not an unassailable fixity amid the entropic storm of the universe but a set of fragilities in constant flux. To know yourself is to know that you are not invulnerable.

The honest encounter with that vulnerability is the wellspring of art: Every artist’s art is their coping mechanism for the extreme sensitivity to aliveness that we call beauty — the transcendent and terrifying capacity to be moved by the world, to let something outside us stir deeply something within us. All great art — and only honest art can be great — is therefore the work of vulnerability and all integrity the function of fidelity to one’s fragilities.

That is what Bob Dylan (b. May 24, 1941) addresses with his penetrating poetics of insight in a 1977 conversation with Jonathan Cott — that uncommonly sensitive and erudite investigator of uncommon minds.

Bob Dylan (Library of Congress)

Cott prefaces the conversation, included in his collection Listening: Interviews, 1970–1989 (public library), with a soulful and percipient encapsulation of Dylan’s gift:

His songs are miracles, his ways mysterious and unfathomable. In words and music, he has reawakened, and thereby altered, our experience of the world. In statement (“He not busy being born is busy dying”) and in image (“My dreams are made of iron and steel / With a big bouquet / Of roses hanging down / From the heavens to the ground”) he has kept alive the idea of the poet and artist as vates — the visionary eye of the body politic — while keeping himself open to a conception of art that embraces and respects equally Charles Baudelaire and Charley Patton, Arthur Rimbaud and Smokey Robinson.

Dylan’s virtuosity with the mysterious and the miraculous has always sprung from his ethos of placing the unconscious mind at the center of creativity. In discussing his film Renaldo and Clara — which Dylan describes as being about integrity, about “naked alienation of the inner self against the outer self” — he tells Cott:

Human emotions are the great dictator.

[…]

You can’t be a slave to your emotions. If you’re a slave to your emotions you’re dependent on your emotions, and you’re only dealing with your conscious mind… You have to be faithful to your subconscious, unconscious, super-conscious — as well as to your conscious. Integrity is a facet of honesty. It has to do with knowing yourself.

True integrity necessitates the honesty of vulnerability — that great valve between us and the world, through which reality rushes into the chamber of our being and art pours out. Dylan observes:

You must be vulnerable to be sensitive to reality. And to me being vulnerable is just another way of saying that one has nothing more to lose. I don’t have anything but darkness to lose. I’m way beyond that.

Bob Dylan by Milton Glaser, 1967.

When the conversation turns to humanity’s greatest spiritual sages — the teachers from various traditions best able to access and teach the eternal truths — Dylan counters Cott’s observation that “they speak and teach with more emotion,” redoubling his defiance of feeling as an organizing principle for truth:

I don’t believe in emotion. They use their hearts, their hearts don’t use them.

A generation after Aldous Huxley reverenced music as the great illuminator of the “blessedness lying at the heart of things,” Dylan exalts music as a supreme instrument of revelation: its inherent honesty, its elemental fidelity to truth — the temporal and the eternal, the personal and the universal:

Music is truthful… Music attracts the angels in the universe.

It may be that Bob Dylan is the Bach of our time — the rare vessel for universal truth, whose music contains “the ultimate expression of anything and everything.”

Complement with three centuries of uncommon minds on the singular power of music and Nick Cave on music, feeling, and transcendence, then revisit psychologist Erich Fromm on vulnerability as the key to our sanity, philosopher Martha Nussbaum on how to live with our human fragility, and philosopher-poet Kahlil Gibran on the courage to know yourself.

BP

An Illustrated Love Letter to Rivers

A painted landscape of fact and feeling along the flow of existence.

An Illustrated Love Letter to Rivers

“There is a mystery about rivers that draws us to them, for they rise from hidden places and travel by routes that are not always tomorrow where they might be today,” Olivia Laing wrote in her stunning meditation on life, loss, and the wisdom of rivers after she walked the River Ouse from source to sea — the River Ouse, in which Virginia Woolf slipped out of the mystery of life, having once observed that “the past only comes back when the present runs so smoothly that it is like the sliding surface of a deep river.”

Rivers are the crucible of human civilization, pulsating with the might and mystery of water, their serpentine paths encoded with the precision of pi, their ceaseless flow encoded in our greatest poems.

“Time is a river that sweeps me along, but I am the river,” Borges wrote in his timeless refutation of time.

But what is a river?

That is what Lithuanian illustrator and storyteller Monika Vaicenavičienė contemplates in What Is a River? (public library) — part prose poem and part encyclopedia, exploring the many things a river is and can be, ecologically and existentially.

The story begins on the banks of a river, with a little girl picking flowers — “every flower has a meaning” — and watching her grandmother sew. What unfolds is framed as the grandmother’s answer to the girl’s question of what a river is:

A river is a thread.
It embroiders our wold with beautiful patterns.
It connects people and places, past and present.
It stitches stories together.

The narrative weaves in the encyclopedic — geology and history, curious statistics about famous rivers — but fact and feeling remain entwined in the poetic.

A river is a journey.

A bubbling spring, a gap in a glacier, a boggy marsh, a silent lake — a river can begin anywhere.

A river travels to many places: prairies and cities, dense forests and lush meadows, steppes and tundra, mountains and valleys. It travels through heat and cold. It leaps from dizzying heights, cascading down as a waterfall. It slinks lazily through marshes. Suddenly, it twists, then meanders. It creeps underground. It carves canyons out of mountains, reducing rock to sediment.

We see the river as home, called to imagine how many human lives the Nile touches in a single day along its 4,100-mile meander across Africa, or the Danube across the ten countries it traverses in Europe (my own native Bulgaria among them).

We see the river as a habitat, to creatures as various as the hippo and the heron, the dragonfly and the platypus.

We see the river as a meeting-place, a muse, a name-source of countries and people, a sensory landscape, an emissary of deep time.

Myth and fact converge into a larger reflection on the ceaseless flow of existence, linking the Ancient Greek myth of Oceanus — the great river encircling the Earth, from which the word ocean derives — with the ecological reality of Earth’s immense, interconnected, ancient system of water circulating through the atmosphere and pulsating through the biosphere.

Complement What Is a River? with Italian artist Alessandro Sanna’s watercolor serenade The River, then revisit poet, painter, and philosopher Etel Adnan on the mountain as a lens on the meaning of life.

Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books; photographs by Maria Popova

BP

Mary’s Room: An Animated Inquiry into the Limits of Knowledge and the Mystery of Consciousness

The gasp beyond fact, contouring the central question of what it is like to be you.

Mary’s Room: An Animated Inquiry into the Limits of Knowledge and the Mystery of Consciousness

“It is not half so important to know as to feel,” Rachel Carson wrote after catalyzing the environmental movement with the rigorous science and passionate poetics of reality, harmonizing fact with feeling as the score to a larger understanding. The sentiment speaks to something essential about our human experience: that understanding is always governed by feeling and that any factual knowledge, rather than shaping subjective experience, is shaped by it.

Consciousness — that synaptic cataclysm of cerebration symphonic with feeling — is our only lens on reality, half-opaque to itself, its nature ever quickening our hardest questions, their answers ever beyond our grasp.

A decade after the electricity of life and subjective experience ceased firing in Carson’s consciousness, Hannah Arendt delivered her staggering Gifford Lectures on the life of the mind, observing that if we ever relinquish our hunger for unanswerable questions — the pinnacle of “the appetite for meaning we call thinking” — we would not only lose all art, but lose science and “the capacity to ask all the answerable questions upon which every civilization is founded.”

At the center of this delicious realm of the unanswerable are our qualia — those subjective states springing from the essence of individual consciousness, intimate and inchoate, pulsating with the mystery of what it is like to be oneself: what it is like for you to look at the blue I am looking at and see it in a way I never will, nor will ever grasp through knowledge.

Color chart by Patrick Syme for Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours: Adapted to Zoology, Botany, Chemistry, Mineralogy, Anatomy, and the Arts. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

In the early 1980s, the Australian philosopher Frank Jackson (b. August 31, 1943) set out to explore how knowable that mystery is with his knowledge argument — a thought experiment, also known as Mary’s Room or Mary the Super-scientist, probing the unfathomed regions of consciousness and the limits of what is knowable with the proboscis of our rational inquiry.

Living in a black-and-white room, reading black-and-white books, and watching black-and-white screens, Jackson’s conceptual Mary studies what the world is and how it works — its physical structures, processes, and causal relationships. But then she leaves her monochrome confines and encounters color — itself the product of physical processes and phenomena, yet producing in Mary a perceptual-psychological experience beyond the knowledge of those processes and phenomena, beyond everything she had understood about color through the knowledge-acquisition paradigm of learning.

A gasp beyond fact, intimating that knowledge of the physical might fail to capture some essential aspects of our consciousness, the experience of color being but one. An almost-answer to the ancient question Plato posed with his thought experiment about consciousness and the nature of reality, the question quantum theory originator Max Planck picked up two and half millennia later with his insistence that “science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature… because… we ourselves are part of nature and therefore part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.”

Art from Thomas Wright’s An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe, 1750. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

Originally devised as an argument against physicalism — the notion that everything known and knowable to us, through thought or feeling, has a physical fundament — the knowledge argument is widely considered “one of the most discussed, important, and controversial” arguments in the ongoing quest to fathom consciousness. That it was later challenged by Jackson himself suggests that we might, after all, be stardust suspended in the hammock of spacetime.

This animated primer from my friends at TED-Ed and chemist Eleanor Nelsen delves into the complexities, the revelations, and the unanswered, possibly unanswerable questions the knowledge argument contours — the central questions of what it is like to be human:

Complement with Richard Feynman’s Ode to a Flower — a Nobel-winning physicist’s sidewise gleam on the same abiding question — then consider a supreme counterpoint to physicalism in the mysterious experience of music.

BP

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