Chapter 16 of 'Einstein' - all chapters at www.bryantwieneke.com


16. Albert walked downtown. His conversation with Besso had contained nothing new, but it provided a catalyst for his thinking. The reality was that for most of history, people had not considered time a linear concept. They thought it was cyclical because nature’s clock was cyclical. It was initially religion and then later Newton that led to time being considered “a series of events occurring in irreversible order and measured in regular intervals.”


Maybe the Greeks were right. Not about cyclical time, but about time being flexible, especially in the world of space beyond the earth's atmosphere or in the minute world of the atom, where objects traveled near the speed of light. He reached an intersection as this thought simmered in his brain, and he stepped off the corner without realizing there was a drop. He landed heavily on his right foot, which made him lose his balance slightly, but it would have taken more than a misstep to jar him loose from his thoughts. Albert felt he was onto something important, but he wasn’t sure what. He considered Lorentz again, who contended that electromagnetic waves caused objects to contract in the direction of their motion. At least in concept, this “contraction” was measurable as objects approached the speed of light. But that was not the end of the story, Albert reminded himself. Lorentz had suggested that while the contraction of an object was only measurable at extremely high speeds, it was true at all speeds. Albert asked himself if time might vary in the same way, under the same conditions. If time varied, would its variability only be measurable nearing the speed of light, like length? Did it also vary at normal speeds, but so little that it was impossible to measure? Was it always varying, all around us and all the time, but we didn’t notice? Maybe, Albert thought.

But speculation was only speculation. Einstein thought back to the other scientists who had ventured into this arena. In his own way, Ernst Mach had come down this path more than a decade earlier. Because Mach could not provide empirical evidence for absolute space and time, he did not accept them as laws. In his view, they were theories built on quicksand, not a solid foundation. He no longer believed in them. Einstein appreciated Mach's point of view. He sometimes thought it was presumptuous, if not arrogant to believe – at this stage of human and scientific development – that we knew anything for sure, especially universal truths such as the nature of time and space. Despite the great contributions of Newton, Einstein had to agree with Mach that Newton's notions of absolute time and space should not be accepted without empirical evidence. While they were helpful concepts and appeared to be true most of the time, no one knew for sure.

Specifically, with respect to the nature of time, there was no experimental evidence to consult. There was no proof that time was absolute; on the other hand, there was no proof that time was not absolute and that it did vary. It was a vicious cycle that led nowhere. Ernst Mach may have led the world of science to a very interesting conceptual door, but at this juncture, no one knew how to open it.

Albert Einstein looked up at the clock tower as he walked through the town square. It was nearing ten o'clock in the evening, and Mileva would start wondering where he was soon. He was also starting to feel the effects of rising early to do his own work, then working all day at the Patent Office. He passed the trolley where he had sat less than an hour ago, pondering the solidity of its molecular structure. This time, he was not tempted to stop. While he felt his brain was getting sluggish due to fatigue, he tried to will it back into action. He had not finished thinking about the problem of time. He was determined to take this line of thinking to its logical conclusion, fatigue or no fatigue. As he continued to walk through the town square toward home, his brain suddenly kicked into action again with a pertinent question. If it was true that time was not linear, not "a series of events occurring in irreversible order and measured in regular intervals," how would one verify such a thing? At the moment, he had no answer to this question. How would one verify the hypothesis that time was not linear? It was the type of threshold question that he often asked as he addressed a problem in physics, taking nothing, or precious little, for granted. His methods were usually fairly straightforward. First, he would collect the experimental and conceptual information related to the problem. Second, he would discard the explanations that were inconsistent with the evidence or relied on shaky assumptions. And third, he would devise a thought experiment that reflected what seemed to be happening and test it through mathematics.

Thought experiments were a type of experiment played out in the mind instead of a laboratory. He was very good at them, creating conditions that allowed ideas or theories to be played out in a virtually unlimited environment, and then grounding the findings through logic and mathematics. His mind was a laboratory without walls, and he preferred experiments there to the lab at the ETH, University of Zurich, or anywhere else. When this method worked, the creative application and combination of mathematical formulas led to a solid proof that was far less open to second-guessing than the average scientific experiment. If it was true mathematically, Albert believed, it was true. Part of the challenge he was facing now as he struggled with the possibility of a new theory of mechanics was that such a theory needed to be so broad and overarching that it was difficult to know what kind of thought experiment might be useful. There was a wealth of laboratory experimental evidence, but it was far easier to know what these findings disproved, e.g., certain classical notions of mechanics, rather than what they proved.

Albert was walking in the general direction of his flat, but he had inadvertently taken a different route from his normal one, ending up on a street that he and Besso took to get to work. Walking slowly, he made his way past the houses that should have been familiar to him, given the number of times he and Besso had passed them. In the dim light he could barely make out the architectural flourishes on the buildings, and he noticed the flowers hanging down from window boxes. Dark shadows hid the other details.

He looked beyond the buildings, where embedded in the beauty of the night sky was the balance and symmetry of nature.

Scientists had recently learned more about the different types of stars and how far away they were. The discoveries were exciting, but they were also controversial because measurements showed that some celestial objects did not behave according to predictions. The more astronomers and physicists learned about celestial objects, the more amazed they were at the magnificent order and design of the universe.

And the more questions they had.

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