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A READER'S JOURNAL
Please, Mr. Einstein
Translated from the French by John Brownjohn
ARJ2 Chapter: Reading for Enjoyment
Published by Harcourt/NY in 2006
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2011
Please, Mr. Einstein
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A girl enters an office filled with men with briefcases in some European city and is led into an inner office where she comes face-to-face with Albert Einstein, a curious occurrence because he has been dead for fifty years. He tells her, "I'm very glad to see you." Why, because he says, "It proves to me that the human race hasn't disappeared." Seems as if he thinks he will be blamed if nuclear weapons were to wipe out humanity, but the girl brings him up short, "If humanity had disappeared, who would be left to blame you for it?" (Page 12, 13) Thus begins their conversation about Einstein's life and theories which fills the pages of this book.
She asks him what he means when he says that "thought is like light: it's continuous and discontinuous." The old gentleman spreads out his hands in a gesture and then lets them fall.
[page 16] "Explain, explain. . . People are so demanding, they always want to understand everything. I'll be glad to try to explain. I often have. In any event, I've endeavored to do so all over the place. You can't assert things without attempting to give the reasons for them, but explanations aren't always enough.
"Meaning what? Please explain."
"Come, come, young lady, don't pretend not to understand, because this is the essential point. If one is to explain something to people, they must intend and want to understand. If not, one might as well be addressing a brick wall."
"I do intend and want to understand to learn something, even, that's why I came straight to you, to your home. I'm not here to ask you to sign a petition, I'm not campaigning for anything and I have no plans to make money off of you. I just want to know a little more. However, from what people have told me and what I've read here and there, the things you say aren't simple."
Light, for example, has hiccups, if you examine it very closely, he explains. A long string of hiccups can be thought of as continuous and discontinuous, and that is how light operates. It seems to be continuous until we examine it closely and then we notice the tiny hiccups we call "quanta". She asks him, "What happened in 1905?"
[page 65,66] "Three or four brief articles in a physics journal whose editor was keen to publish me. People have written about them so often. Why bring them up again?"
"I tried to read those articles. I failed."
"You aren't the only one. Anyway, don't bother. Scientific terminology has completely changed since then. Even I might have trouble rereading them, and I'm sure I'd be tempted to correct them if I did to insert question marks in the margins."
"So reading them wouldn't be worth my while?"
"No, I told you. What you've just seen here in this room all those interminable calculations, all those assumptions, manipulations and verifications, all that is just a dark cloud through which we have to pass in order to convince our colleagues of the truth of our conclusions by means of our procedure itself. It's the jargon of our club. We have to conform to it or our membership isn't renewed and we're refused admission. No need for you to venture into it, you'd risk getting lost. After all, you don't refer to the original text when you read something translated from Chinese, you trust the translator. Don't bother!"
"Much obliged," she says.
Our ideas are born in light, but must pass through the darkness of calculations so that others may come to believe and understand them.
As for his theory of relativity, Einstein gives a rather droll explanation based on the validity of his theory, something he must have mulled over personally while others waded through the darkness of his equations.
[page 73] Einstein gives another example of what he calls "basic relativity," the everyday kind. In those days he used to like to say of himself, "If the theory of relativity proves valid, Germany will claim me as a German and France will proclaim that I'm a citizen of the world. If my theory is disproved, France will say I'm a German and Germany will proclaim that I'm a Jew."
When Rooster Cogburn in the movie, True Grit, said he moved backwards from the man he had shot, he was asked by the judge to explain exactly which direction he moved. Rooster replied, "When I say I moved backwards, the direction I moved was backwards!" The universe is like that for us. We can pretend it has coordinates in our mind, like the judge did, but to a human being, it's all relative. Einstein was a Rooster Cogburn in the history of science because he saw everything relative to himself.
[page 73] The universe isn't constructed like a house based on architectural drawings and elevations. Top, bottom, near, far none of those words possess other than a relative meaning, if you give the matter two minutes' thought."
"Is that why you spoke of space-time?"
"In part. So as to coordinate events, to situate them both in space and in time. . . . To put it another way, I situated matter in space-time, which curved in consequence. It bowed to me, so to speak."
We seem to need a way to understand the incomprehensible, but Einstein tells us that is futile. "As if," he begins derisively, "the stars were hung in the sky to answer our long-standing questions." He gives us the mantra of the materialistic scientist, which if we hum it long enough, will convince us that the stars which are unreachable during our daytime being must likewise be unreachable to our nighttime being, which seems to me to be the abderian route to absurdity. And, yet, he admits to experiencing feelings feelings which are the scant daytime bleed-through of our nighttime perception of the spiritual world in which the stars are our intimate companions. But, Einstein avers, he doesn't believe in God.
[page 85, 86, italics added] "Certainly not. In the light of this boundless magnificence, the notion of a divine creator and ferocious chastiser of the only human race strikes me as wholly absurd. Why should such a genius, who encompasses all things in a cosmic dream of unattainable dimensions, pore over our tiny peccadilloes like some persnickety schoolmaster? Besides, as you're doubtless aware, to a scientist all our actions are predetermined, or nearly all. Our free will is extremely limited.
I would say rather, to a dummkopf all human actions are predetermined. To use one's thought to probe the universe and to explain only the physical aspects of the universe all the while ignoring thought itself is a true abderian fiasco. But the physical aspects of the universe are explained and accepted by the dark equations of the members of the club, whose clubhouse entrance is topped by the warning, "Abandon All Free Will Before Entering."
Rightly understood, science pours the material world into the realm of spirit by formulating its laws, while art pours the realm of the spirit into the material world by creating its works of art(1). To me that is a far better way of understanding science and art than what the girl says in this next passage.
[page 106] "But the arts obscure the mysterious," she says, "whereas the sciences seem to make it their mission to dispel it."
The girl's Einstein disagrees, but only throws more confusion into the mix of obfuscation which at times chunks up in this novel around the ideas of Einstein.
[page 107] Einstein disagrees. It's true, he says, that the arts tend to seek obscurity that's what they're there for but they can also arrive at resounding truths that are personally experienced and felt by a very large number of people, whereas scientists are forever roaming from one mystery to another. And, when they think they've discovered some kind of new light, they don't know how to make it acknowledge that discovery. Darkness resists, digs its heels in, builds itself new lairs. Hence the liking scientists cherish for the inexplicable, and hence their attraction to the unknown. (A perverted taste? Who knows?) It's as if vast territories of a potentially hostile, lethal nature have only been awaiting their arrival to reveal themselves ever since the world began.
The next passage contains a wonderful reference to the disappearance of magic contained in Shakespeare's final work. This metaphor presages the move of science from alchemy to chemistry which was accompanied by human beings turning their view from the spiritual realities to the hard physical realities.
[page 107] And to think that there are still some who feel a nostalgia for magic, for the great, encoded secret preserved by initiates, for signs that conceal things, for symbols and numbers! They have forgotten that in The Tempest, at Shakespeare's behest, Prospero consigns his magic book to the ocean bed forevermore. His charms and spells are "O'erthrown," tossed overboard. He abandons them and goes home. A huge page turned at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Copernicus was dead and Galileo hard at work, Descartes had already been born. A brave new world was in the offing. Elves and goblins were disappearing who knows where, fairies were in hiding. The last witches were being burned at the stake by frenzied fanatics.
Soon, the everyday experience of elves and fairies disappeared from adult eyes, remaining only in the eyes of the newborn until they reached about three years old. What remained were the dregs of the coffee whose aromas filled the nostrils of humans for ages. Scientists today claim that the humans who smelled the aromas and saw directly such visions of the spiritual world as elves and fairies were hallucinating.
Einstein at one point in the novel refers to himself as a "model" because at every place he went to speak, he was photographed. Once he stuck his tongue in disdain for the photographer with the camera and that became one of his most famous images, as though he did it often instead of only once. When the renown scientist Arthur Eddington confirmed Einstein's prediction of the curvature of space in 1919, curiously it was the golf correspondent for the New York Times which reported the scientific breakthrough.
[page 134] He is photographed on each of this public outings, so much so that he once declared that his true profession was that of a photographer's model. In 1948, on emerging from the hospital after a brief admission for surgery, he sticks out his tongue at one of the photographers who are pestering him, and this impish image remains a twentieth-century icon, even today.
When people suggested that his theories could produce a bomb that could destroy the world, Einstein thought it was idiotic and impossible.
[page 136] "I didn't believe that one of my equations could unleash the Apocalypse. They hadn't been conceived with that in mind, of course. They were research, pure and simple."
When his fellow scientists came to plead with him to write the letter to President Roosevelt suggesting a way to end World War II, Einstein was taken aback. How could he suggest such a thing be created from his own ideas?
[page 138, 139] "I was in an exceptionally dramatic position. Can you imagine? There was a possibility that the fate of the planet was being decided in this little seaside house, which a doctor friend had lent me. We knew that the fission of uranium had been achieved and that several teams were on the way to producing a chain reaction."
Back then, no one imagined the atomic bomb could be made small enough to be carried on an airplane, so it was thought that only port cities were endangered by a large ship carrying the bomb into a harbor. That was what he wrote in the short letter to Roosevelt which he signed on August 2, 1939. When the bomb was finally used for the first time, on Japan instead of Germany, he listened to the event on the radio like everyone else. He reportedly called it a "calamity." (Page 152)
But his biggest calamity was the thought experiment he teamed up with two graduate students, Poldosky and Rosen, to show that quantum mechanics had a fatal flaw, a paradox, which their thought experiment revealed. The girl wants to know about the EPR Paradox.
[page 168] The girl now alludes to the old EPR paradox to which Einstein lent his initial (the others being those of Poldosky and Rosen), the crucial more recent experiment conducted by the physicist Aspect and the research carried out by other experts of whom she has heard. What about these particles that receive information instantaneously, wherever they happen to be in the universe, as if space and time had no hold over them. As if they ignored and dominated them or constituted them? and as if non-localized influences faster than light were at work? What about them?
The unthinkable has been proved possible! And necessary! It revealed Einstein's biggest difficulty he had to give up thinking. Perhaps that T-shirt with his tongue sticking out is the crux of his message to the world in which he found unthinkable things happening.
[page 169] I can't bring myself to admit defeat and say: Beyond a certain point the world is genuinely inexplicable, prodigiously incoherent and fundamentally paradoxical, and I will never know how or why. I will never be able to say that. You asked me the question on arrival, remember? You asked me to explain, and I told you that explaining is the hardest thing in the world. Now do you see why? Because I'd have to explain that we must give up explaining. And I never would! It would mean going against all that made up my life. Was I lionized, feted, decorated, celebrated, showered with awards and praised to the skies, only to take my leave, sticking out my tongue for the last time and saying: Ladies and gentlemen, I've been no earthly use, I've floundered around in ignorance, I don't know what to say to you and I'm making for the exit bereft of ideas?"
[page 171] Just for fun, the girl speaks of a puddle formed in a potholed road after a shower of rain. Suddenly endowed with reason, the puddle explores the ground around it and cries, "What a miraculous coincidence! My shape and dimensions exactly match those of this hole in the road! That means I was meant to be at this particular road! There's no doubt about it, so what other purpose could I serve?"
Some minds, she says, are shaped like puddles.
Einstein's mind was not such a mind, it did not fit into the puddle of science or even into the puddle we call the universe. He managed to extract some meaning from the world that no one else ever imagined and the result was, as he saw it, a cataclysm. Instead of a puddle, perhaps the world is a muddle. "It's an everlasting muddle. The world is our muddle. And yet, whatever the object of our work, it's always the world of which we're thinking. It's all we have." As the girl leaves, he waves to her, and picks up his violin to play it. Will he perhaps play Schoenberg for the first time?
---------------------------- Footnotes -----------------------------------------Return to text directly before Footnote 1.
Footnote 2. This choice of words creates a reference to the Pudels Kern, a German idiom meaning the heart of the meaning of something, literally the "middle of the poodle".Return to text directly before Footnote 2.
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