Peering into Einstein's mind at work

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Peering into Einstein's mind at work

"Einstein's Dreams" are meditations about the nature of time. "Suppose time is a circle, bending back on itself. The world repeats itself precisely, endlessly. Traders do not know that they will make the same bargain again and again. Politicians do not know that they will shout from the same lectern an infinite number of times in the cycles of time."

It is 1905, a patent office in Berne, Switzerland. Albert Einstein, is preparing the paper that will become his special theory of relativity. He imagines time as a river whose eddies cast some drifters suddenly backward. Time with a sticky texture, catching some people and stopping their progress. Suppose time's movement is random and unpredictable; effect sometimes precedes cause. Suppose time is linear and heading for a destination; it is known to all that the world will end two years from today. Each hypothesis has consequences in the bourgeois dailiness of Berne, where lovers quarrel and make up, men sicken and die, friends go boating on the Aare River.

In one dream, "time is not a quantity but a quality." People live in the time that they experience most intensely. A man is with a woman he has just met, or perhaps they have been together a lifetime. The man's impatient mother sees the two at dinner, but to her he is a little boy who belongs at home with her.

These little stories, beautifully told, are oddly consoling, for it turns out that these time travelers live as we do: They cherish home, buy and sell, share meals and laughter and love. They, too, know sorrow and disappointment.

The book also offers a plausible glimpse into the historical Einstein's mind, for according to his biographers his ways of discovering the universe's secrets were poetic and intuitive, rather than lab-oriented and mathematical. Poets should love "Einstein's Dreams," and perhaps physicists can learn from it, too.

by Hal Piper
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