September 9, 2008

Poetic Time

For decades the world has been taught that Einstein’s Theory of Relativity is a set of extremely unfathomable complex mathematical concepts. The Theory of Relativity ― a superb orchestration of strokes of genius based upon Riemann’s geometric ideas which overthrew the Euclid’s 2300 year-old domination ― has become a sacred area of thought where those who are not brilliant in physics should not even think to lift a finger.

This novel by Alan Lightman, MIT professor in physics and director of the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies, is enchanting because it transforms Einstein’s quest for the nature of time from pure mathematical abstractions into concrete human experiences. Time presented is the pulsing time inside every human being, constituting one as a true human. Instead of presenting a theoretical description about a very complex and subtle cosmic phenomenon that exist independent of human beings, Lightman offers a literary work to intensify the awareness of time that resides in every human’s heart and body. He illustrates the abstract concept of time through lenses of the pain of longing and the joy of passion, and in our aspiration to seek out our destiny and freedom.

Comprised of 30 literary vignettes, the novel explores various imaginary possibilities of time. Time that never been fully penetrated by scientific logical subjugation. Some of them remind me of the concept of intertwined time woven by a Chinese governor Tsu’i Pen, and the frozen time experienced by a brilliant writer Jaromir Hladik in Jorge Luis Borges’s Ficciones.

This magical time in turn presents equally fascinating space, places, and therefore cities. As one of American critics wrote, Switzerland’s Bern is magically transformed as to match Armilla or Octavio and other ancient cities Marco Polo told to Kubilai Khan in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.

Lightman indeed appears more as a literary artist than a physicist. He does not apply accurate measurement of things and rigorously logical consistency to bring Einstein’s theory alive. Instead, he employs narrative expressions and language richness to present impressions and traces of cognitive-complexes through sequences of poetic images. Proceed without a plot, this beautiful novel reminds us of an anthology of lyrical prose. Here we can find juxtapositions of images similar to Giorgio de Chirico’s early paintings, or to a piece of Indonesian most famous poet, Chairil Anwar: Senja di Pelabuhan Kecil (Twilight at a Little Harbor).

As with the ‘I’ in Anwar’s poem, the most touching part of this novel is the revelation of how human beings respond to particular situations in which they are forced to confront the constraints and the challenges of time. Among others, how human face the time that encircles and envelopes him while he at the same time is attached to it, how time emerges as fragments evading fluidity, and the time where a present life cannot share elements of the past.

However, as in every step toward a deeper understanding of ourselves and the forces around us, this book cannot avoid conforming to the ironclad rule of knowledge: every act of comprehension requires an act of forgetting. An act of knowing requires an act of unknowing, as Stuart Kauffman, a complexity expert of Santa Fe Institute once put it. An intensification of our awareness of time can be accomplished only by temporarily disregarding the certain inherent aspects of time ― movement and space. These characteristics are ignored, or suspended, in order to enhance the concreteness of time. Whereas Newton’s biggest contribution to science was the mathematical definition of how and in which situations movement changes in time, Einstein revolutionary showed that, among others, how time dilatation occurs along the movements: the movement almost at the speed of light.

As in the case of artists’ masterpieces, physicists’ works such as Einstein’s are not merely the result of one’s struggles with the nature and with oneself. Scientists’ endeavors are also reflections of his/her dissatisfactions with the previous works of others. Einstein’s paper published in June edition of Annalen der Physik 17, 1905, pg. 891, discussed the kinematics and electrodynamics aspects of moving objects. It was in particular, a reaction to Michelson-Morley’s experiment to validate the existence of ether as a medium for the transmission of light. It was also as an expansion of Lorentz’s ideas of transformation, and Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetic waves. The paper concluded that ether did not actually exist, and that the speed of light remained the same regardless of the source or the relative position of the observer. The finding of this article and the reasoning behind its basic assumptions deny both Newtonian logic and perception of absolute space and time. Here we see how science, and more importantly scientists, continue to test and refine their craft out of a need to insert themselves as individuals into an evolving tapestry of time and ideas that help us to understand the universe in which we live.

Yet it seems it is important for Lightman in this novel to set aside the dimensions of movement and the “ecology of thought” that formed a base for Einstein’s dreams. That way he relieves his readers from theoretical burden, and indulge them with pure literary treat that can give us to a realization that life is indeed far richer than physics. It’s also a prelude to another realization of how the reality of the great universe could still far more fantastic than human life.

Through aesthetically guided physics ― the elegance in simplicity golden principle ― Einstein dedicated his life not only to the General and Special Relativity. He also dragged the world of science into a universe far more fictitious than anything human intelligence ever dares to imagine. Eventually it will be proven that even Einstein’s sparks of genius were powerless to encounter the miracle that haunted him until his life on this earth was over. Perhaps someday Alan Lightman or somebody else will come with another beautiful novel dealing with Einstein’s Nightmare and Revelation?***

Nirwan Ahmad Arsuka

Einstein’s Dreams, Alan P. Lightman

Translated into Indonesian by Yusi A. Pareanom (KPG, Jakarta: 1999), 140 pgs.

The Indonesian version of this piece was published in Tempo Magazine, 20 September1999.

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