Chapter 14 of 'Einstein - all chapters at

14. Albert’s line of thinking this evening was getting him nowhere. Maybe he needed to talk it through with someone. Not Mileva – she did not seem to be in a receptive mood at the moment.

I should go see Besso, he thought.

Einstein had been bouncing ideas off Michele Besso for years. He did not have answers to any of these questions, but he was a good sounding board, despite his irreverence and sarcasm. Or maybe because of it. Einstein could not get away with any sort of overly esoteric or self-indulgent thinking. Besso would always call him on it. But he did allow Einstein to express what he was thinking. As long as it made sense, Besso would prompt or ask questions that helped Albert to understand a concept better, or push an idea beyond the point he had been able to reach alone in his study. Talking with Besso did not always help. But it was worth a try on a night like this, when everything was stalled and his thinking was stagnant. He blew out the lantern in his study and walked into the living room. He thought Mileva was working on her blanket, but a pile of fabric lay on the chair and the room was empty. Albert found Mileva in the kitchen, where she was making tea. She had her back to him and jumped when she heard his footstep on the kitchen floor. “I didn’t hear you coming.” she replied, recovering her composure. He nodded. The same iron kettle that he had used in the morning was sitting on the stove. “Would you like some tea?” she asked, apparently wondering why he was there. “No, thank you. I need to go see Besso. I need to ask him a question.” She stared at him. “What kind of question?” “About the nature of time,” he replied.

“Why do you want to know about that?” she asked. He could not tell if she was being curious or argumentative. He decided to accept her inquiry at face value. “All of Newton’s laws of motion are based on a notion of time as regular and constant,” he explained. “I’m wondering if it needs to be that way.” The beginning of a smile crept onto Mileva’s lips. Albert was surprised to see it, not just because she had been smiling so seldom lately, but because neither of them had said anything amusing, as far as he knew. “Is there something wrong with that?” he asked. She shook her head. “No, it’s just so like you not even to trust the nature of time.” He shrugged, as if to say, “I am what I am.” “It’s not a bad thing, Albert. I just miss it.” “Miss what?” “I miss talking to you,” she said, watching the kettle on the stove instead of looking at him, even though the water was not hot yet and there was nothing to do. “I’m a physicist, too, you know. Not a practicing one, I admit, but we used to talk about issues like the nature of time every day. Now, we never talk about anything except the baby, and even then you don’t seem all that interested.” She paused, but he said nothing, so she continued. “When you’re here, you seem to be caught up in a world that you won’t let me enter, not even with questions that we used to discuss all the time. It makes me feel terrible.”

Albert stared at his wife as she stared at the iron kettle on the stove. He did not know what to say because she was right. Instead of speaking, he put his hand on her shoulder. She continued to look away from him as they stood there, frozen in time for the moment. Finally, she said distantly. “Go see Michele.” For some reason, this comment, and the way she said it, caused a sinking feeling inside him. “Why do you say it like that?” “Like what?” she replied in the same apathetic tone. “If you want to go, go.” “I’m going to talk to him about physics,” he objected. “I’m not going to make you feel terrible.” “Yes, well that’s the effect anyway, isn’t it?” He stared at her. While he admitted he could be inattentive to his family and preoccupied with physics, he felt as if she was just being mean-spirited in this case. All he wanted to do, after all, was go for a walk and see his friend. Walking out the door of the flat, he felt a mixture of anger and guilt. The two emotions seem to feed off each other as he walked, causing the adrenaline to flow through his body as he walked through the cool evening air. He did not head directly for Besso’s, feeling too disoriented to talk to anyone at the moment. Instead, he veered away from the center of town toward the trolley yard, which he knew would be deserted at this time of night. He gazed upward and tried to get his mind off the disturbances of day-to-day life.

The moonless night sky was clear and full of stars this evening. As usual, he was captivated by the combination of beauty and order they represented. Unusual celestial events, like an eclipse or the appearance of a comet, were less interesting to him than the average evening sky. He was intrigued by the ostensibly random way in which the stars were arranged, with their subtle color differences and varying light intensity. Even with his deep appreciation of the night sky, however, Einstein could not help but think about the planet Mercury, which was off by just a little in its orbit according to classical theory. The point on its elliptical path that was nearest the sun, its "perihelion," increased very slightly each year. However, Einstein knew that being off by a little was as bad as being off by a lot. As with the other findings that had caused a ripple in the glassy smooth surface of the Newtonian universe, this finding of a planet in the wrong place at the wrong time meant there was a fatal error in the law used to predict the planet’s movement. It was simple in the world of physics – if there was even one case where a law did not apply, it could not be a law. It could be a useful tool, but not a law. Albert had reached the staging area for the town’s trolleys, and it was close enough to the center of town for him to see clearly the back of the huge Clock Tower. He liked it here because it was quiet and no one else would be in the yard past eight o'clock in the evening. Even so, his walk had not totally quelled the emotional turmoil created by his disagreement with Mileva. It was still there, bubbling inside him.

He stood by an idle trolley car and, giving full rein to his emotions, gave a sharp kick to its metal wheel. Amazingly, his inner turmoil immediately evaporated. It felt great for only a moment because he was suddenly assaulted by an excruciating pain in the big toe of his right foot. “Scheiße,” he shouted. He climbed the steps painfully onto the trolley and sat down in the first passenger seat. He removed his shoe and rubbed the big toe that he suspected he may have broken due to the initial pain. Now that he was rubbing it, however, the pain was beginning to dissipate. After a minute or two, he replaced his shoe and thought about where he was sitting. Was it really possible for the length of this trolley to vary according to whether or not it was moving, Albert asked himself.

He channeled Hendrick Lorentz and asked himself if it was possible for this trolley, if it were moving near the speed of light, to grow shorter? Such a phenomenon was not only inconsistent with Newton's laws of mechanics; it was inconsistent with common sense. Albert patted the seat of the trolley, as if to test the solidity of its infrastructure. The concept that a trolley, or a table or a person for that matter, had unused space within it was at the very least counter-intuitive. The concept suggested there were basic building blocks of nature that were impossible to see with the naked eye, or even with a microscope. Then within these building blocks, called atoms, there were even tinier elements that comprised each atom. These tinier elements, including the electrons, were so tiny that there was space between them. Not only that, but the electron was negatively charged, so that when the trolley with its atoms and electrons moved at great speeds through electromagnetic waves in the atmosphere, they would be squished together, somehow reducing the size of the atom. As the atoms contracted, one after another after another, millions of them all contracting together, the absolute size of the trolley – or whatever object was in motion through electromagnetic waves – would be reduced. The mutual pulling together of the millions of atoms that made up the trolley would make it shorter, or smaller. In any event, its size would change.

Albert patted the seat of the trolley again. It felt much more solid than its subatomic composition would suggest.

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