In Alan Lightman’s first novel, Einstein’s Dreams, he imagines what Einstein may have been dreaming about in Bern, Switzerland before he published his Special Theory of Relativity in 1905. I have had a fascination with Einstein ever since I was a teenager. I first came to him because he seemed connected to an earlier fascination with the possibility of time travel.
The 26-year-old Albert Einstein in the novel is in an unhappy marriage. He has a job as a patent clerk that he dislikes and that is far below his abilities. In his head are dreamscapes of theoretical realms of time. Alan Lightman describes the dreams which occur between April 14, 1905, and June 28, 1905. Of course, all of it is pure imagination. There is science in the imagined worlds. People’s lives are based on time being circular or flowing backward, or slowing down. The project Einstein was working on concerned electricity and magnetism, but the solution required a reconception of time. When the book opens, Einstein has finished with his new theory of time and, while he waits a few hours for a typist in his patent office, he thinks of his dreams.
To me, many of the dreams seem in their language very much like poems. That makes sense because dreams do seem poetic to me. At least, the dreams I remember and am able to record. If I take some of Einstein’s dreams and do some line breaks, they look and sound more like poems. Found poetry.
14 April 1905
time is a circle,
the world repeats
births, deaths, a glass falls and breaks,
all is repeated
and then again
nothing is temporary
Some people know
all this has happened before.
They walk the night streets
and cannot unbreak the glass,
prevent the death,
erase one unkind word.
16 April 1905
Time flows like a stream here
and when some rivulet
turns away and connects backstream,
it carries the people back.
Do you see them?
They are the fearful ones.
They know that any change they make
in the past,
will change the future.
Okay, let’s move from dreams and poem and on to that fact that I have wanted to build a time machine ever since I saw the movie version of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. I probably read the Classics Illustrated comics version before I read the novel. I had boxes of discarded electronics and machines in my basement that I had culled on garbage collection days. I loved playing with the gears, knobs, and circuit boards. I learned some things along the way, got some nasty shocks, and burned myself on my soldering iron, but I never did get a working time machine. Many years later, watching the movie E.T., I watched that alien build his communicator using kids’ toys in that same ridiculously easy way I had hoped would work.
I have read that Wells wrote his novel partially in response to Charles Darwin publishing his theory of evolution which was the big scientific news of the time. His novel can be seen as a story about evolution, as he tells how we will evolve in the future. It’s not a pretty, but a cautionary, tale.
Can we go back in time? Einstein was not much fun for time travel enthusiasts. Though we might imagine going back in time and righting wrongs (small ones of our own or large historical ones), he pretty much concluded that if we were to travel back, we would be who we were and do what we had done again. It’s an infinite loop. It doesn’t make for a good story or film. (So much for Back to the Future.) We couldn’t go back before our birth because we didn’t exist.
Simplified, Einstein said that by traveling at the speed of light, you would force time to slow down, then to stop, and finally to go backward. Of course, even if we could go faster than the speed of light, none of us could survive the speedy journey. (Though Superman did in a film in order to save Lois Lane.) Special relativity states that your mass would become infinite in the process. Some proponents of time travel point out that Einstein’s equations for general relativity do allow some forms of time travel, but then we are into science that is not for this post.
If you do want to still pursue some time travel, check into the ten-dimensional hyperspace theory, wormholes, and dimensional windows.
Time travel is a risky business. Personally, I am not a fan of blasting into some other time and finding myself binding into some substance in the space which I or the machine now occupies.
Einstein also warned of paradoxes. Meeting your parents before you are born is a popular one. (See the first Back to the Future film) But then, that couldn’t happen because you didn’t exist then. Of course, you could go back to when you were 15 and get killed in an accident. Then what? Paradox.
4th May 1905
but little happens.
Year to year,
month to month,
day to day,
the passage of events
are the same.
If you have no ambitions
you are unaware of your suffering,
the ambitious ones
know and suffer
but very slowly.
8th May 1905
The world will end
on the 26th of September 1907.
Everyone knows it.
Schools close the year before.
Businesses close the month before.
People are surprisingly unafraid.
They think over their coffee that
now there is nothing to really fear.
On September 25th
there is laughter on the streets,
neighbors who never spoke
greet each other as friends.
We are all equal in the world of one day.
One minute before the end
everyone in Berne gathers together.
No one moves or speaks.
It is like leaping off a mountain.
They hold hands as the end approaches.
They are weightless,
cool air rushes by,
of snow fills their vision.
The Time Machine
Back to the Future – The Complete Trilogy
The Time Machine