Science

Alan Lightman, time, and ‘the most exciting part of being alive’

Bonus: Alan Lightman Talks Creativity, Time, and Einstein

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For Alan Lightman, dreaming up a character in a novel or discovering a new equation leads to unparalleled exhilaration.

“You’re just in this disembodied state of seeing the cosmos and being with the cosmos, and it’s the most exciting part of being alive,” says Dr. Lightman. 

Dr. Lightman is a professor of the practice of the humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As an astrophysicist, he has advanced our understanding of the behavior of the materials orbiting stars and black holes. As a writer, he has produced work spanning a wide range of genres.

His bestselling novel “Einstein’s Dreams,” which follows Albert Einstein as he works on his special theory of relativity in 1905, imagines several different ways in which time could work. It conveys, in a way that no textbook could, how Einstein’s insights radically altered our view of the cosmos.

In this bonus episode of “It’s About Time,” hosts Rebecca Asoulin and Eoin O’Carroll talk to Dr. Lightman about his definition of time, Einstein’s work, and the joys of creating. They also discuss a subject close to Dr. Lightman’s heart: how technology is fragmenting our sense of time – and with it, our ability to think deeply about the world around us. 

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“We are losing something very important,” Dr. Lightman says. “The ability to sit in a chair quietly for 10 minutes without any external stimulation. To take a walk and just observe the world around us, without checking our email. To quietly think about what’s important to us and who we are.” 

This is a bonus episode in a six-part series in the Monitor’s “Rethinking the News” podcast. To listen to the other episodes on our site or on your favorite podcast player, please visit the “It’s About Time” series page.

Audio Transcript

Jessica Mendoza: Welcome to “Rethinking the News” by The Christian Science Monitor. I’m Jessica Mendoza, one of the producers. We’ve got a special bonus episode for you today of our science series “It’s About Time,” hosted by Rebecca Asoulin and Eoin O’Carroll. You can find our other episodes wherever you listen to podcasts. In this one, Eoin and Rebecca talk with renowned physicist and writer Dr. Alan Lightman. Enjoy. 

[Music]

Rebecca Asoulin: This is “It’s About Time.” A series all about …

Eoin O’Carroll: Time. I’m Eoin O’Carroll. 

Rebecca: And I’m Rebecca Asoulin. 

Eoin: In this science series, we interview experts on time. They’ll help us unravel its mysteries.

Rebecca: Because understanding time more deeply can help us make the most of the time we have. 

[Music]

Rebecca: Dr. Lightman wrote the international bestseller “Einstein’s Dreams.” Each chapter imagines a different way time could work. The novel follows Albert Einstein as he works on his special theory of relativity in 1905. In Episode 2, we actually explore the theory of relativity and how one physicist used it to try to build a time machine. Check it out if you haven’t listened. 

Eoin: Dr. Lightman is also the author of “In Praise of Wasting Time,” which looks at how being plugged into the internet all the time can take a toll on our collective well-being. It’s one of my favorite topics. He’s one of those rare scientists who is willing to entertain my questions about the very nature of the laws of physics and where they come from, and questions about epistemology – that’s the philosophical study of knowledge. 

Rebecca: Dr. Lightman had this very calming way about him that made this interview wonderful. 

[Music]

Eoin: I wanted to start off by asking – this is something we ask everybody usually at the end, but I’m really excited to hear your answer for for this one. What is your definition of time?

Alan Lightman: Well, that’s a great question. Time is a measurement of change. If there was no change at all anywhere in the universe, then you wouldn’t be able to measure anything that we associate with time.

Rebecca: So obviously, you’re both a physicist and a writer. And I was wondering if you think that physicists and writers understand time differently, or kind of how their definitions would differ? 

Alan Lightman: Oh, very definitely. They’re different. Writers deal with the world of the mind and the psychology of human beings. I’m thinking now of fiction writers. Fiction writers have have used the passage of time greatly in writing novels, and they are well aware of the fact that the psychological experience of time is very different from what clocks measure. If you’re enjoying the moment, time may seem to pass too quickly. And if it’s a painful moment like getting a tooth pulled, time seems to pass more slowly. Whereas the physicist deals with time in terms of clocks and rulers. Time is something that is measured by a device that we call a clock. 

For example, Einstein asked the question, if you have two different clocks that are moving relative to each other would they tick at the same rate? And he discovered the astounding fact that no, they would not tick at the same rate. Each clock would see the other clock ticking more slowly than it was ticking. So Einstein was not thinking about time philosophically or in a literary way. He was thinking about it as something that a physical clock measures. A very practical notion of what time is. 

Eoin: I mean, yet he completely revolutionized our earliest physicists’ conception of how time works. Could you talk a little bit about how science defined time before Einstein and what it was that changed after Einstein? 

Alan Lightman: Well, before Einstein, time was considered absolute. That is, a second is a second is a second, that all clocks in the cosmos tick at the same rate. And Einstein refuted that idea. He suggested that time is something that we can actually measure. So we don’t have to assume that time behaves in any particular way. We don’t have to assume that it’s absolute. We actually investigate time the way that scientists do.

Eoin: So reading “Einstein’s Dreams” prompted me to go back and look at Einstein’s original paper, “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies,” written in 1905. 

Alan Lightman: Good for you.

Eoin: And what surprised me about it is that it didn’t start off with twins on spaceships, or flashlights on trains, or even lasers and mirrors, but a discussion of a 19th-century problem of a magnet and a conductor. And he ends up revolutionizing our concept of a fundamental thing that really is associated with having a mind. And I find that leap extraordinary. 

Alan Lightman: Yeah, it is extraordinary. You’re quite right that Einstein was not thinking about time when he started that investigation. He was thinking about the behavior of electricity and magnetism. And Einstein realized that he had to re-conceive the notion of time, but he didn’t start at that point, as you said. He was only 26 years old at the time, and it must have been pretty astounding when he realized that – that we had to modify our concept of time in order to understand electricity and magnetism. It’s hard to imagine how a person that age could make that kind of intellectual leap. 

Eoin: You know, what do we know – I mean, you’ve researched that year, that miraculous year of 1905, when he solved the problems not just of special relativity, but also Brownian motion and the photoelectric effect. And, you know, that was a year of extraordinary creativity, the kind that only comes along once every couple of centuries. What do you know about how Einstein did it?

Alan Lightman: I mean, no one knows exactly how the ideas of 1905 came to him, but he was very caught up on modern physics. In those days an undergraduate physics student could go to the forefront of the field pretty quickly. And I imagine that at least his subconscious mind was thinking about physics all the time.

Rebecca: So at the end of your book, you have the character of Einstein feeling empty after handing off his theory of time to be typed up. I was wondering, you know, why do you have him feeling the sense of emptiness at the end?

Alan Lightman: I wrote that because when we have a creative experience – and of course, dreaming up relativity theory was an enormously creative act – it takes everything out of us. We use all of our body. It’s not just a mental thing. And I think that – that artists as well as scientists know this. But I know that I personally have been the happiest in my creative moments, either as a writer or as a physicist. And when the creative act is over, there is a sadness that comes with that. There’s a loss because that extreme peak of existence, of exhilaration, when you’re doing something that nobody has ever done before – you’re creating the character of a novel or you’re discovering a new equation. That exhilaration can’t be matched by anything else. I mean, you’re just in this disembodied state of seeing the cosmos and being with the cosmos, and it’s the most exciting part of being alive. And after that’s over, you miss it. It’s a loss. 

Eoin: So in one of the early chapters of “Einstein’s Dreams,” you describe a world in which there’s this distinction between clock time and body time. And I love this phrase, you write, “body time squirms and wriggles like a bluefish in a bay.” Could you talk a little bit about the sort of big, wrenching disconnect that we get between time as we perceive it and time as the clock measures it?

Alan Lightman: The ancient Greeks had two words for time. One was “chronos,” which is clock time. But there’s another word, “kairos.” And that is the time associated with human existence, with human activity, with births and deaths and marriages and eating good food and all of the things that we do as social animals. Of course, we’re missing a lot of that now during the pandemic. I think that there’s always a tension between those two kinds of time – the physical clock time, which goes on relentlessly, and this experience of time, the human experience of time. Our world, our civilization is moving faster and faster and faster. We’re cramming more and more into the same 24 hours. 

Eoin: In “In Praise of Wasting Time,” you go into technology overuse quite a bit too. What are some techniques that you use to, to try to curb your smartphone overuse? Do you have any way of slowing that down?

Alan Lightman: So I shut off all of my devices during the dinner hour. That’s one thing that I do. Every day I try to take a walk in which I don’t take my iPhone with me, and sometimes I don’t even take a wristwatch with me so that I am not aware of clock time. And I can just experience the world for 30 minutes or an hour or whatever it is. I also unplug to a large extent during the summer. 

Of course, not everybody is is able to do that. But I think that what everybody is able to do is take 20 or 30 minutes a day and unplug from their devices and either take a walk or just sit quietly in a chair. And it’s amazing how. Your mind relaxes when you’re not constantly checking off items on your to do list or looking at your iPhone or checking messages every five minutes, that your mind gets into a different space where you just are. You just are being. You have time to reflect on who you are and where you’re going and what your values are. And I think that that’s extremely important, not just for us as individuals, but I think it’s important for our whole society and even our whole country to to have some time for reflection, to think about what our values are and where we’re going.

Eoin: One thing I notice is that every time I check the time – because, you know, I’m kind of a minimalist. I don’t wear a watch. I check it on my phone. And by checking it on my phone, I check the time and then it would be six hours later and I’d be reading, you know, Wikipedia entries on 17th-century maritime disasters. Just simply the act of checking the time, I’d get sucked into the technology. And so I decided to get a wristwatch instead, which got me thinking about a lot of the things that smartphones are doing to us right now, and the ways that they’re kind of organizing our behavior have echoes in history, with the way the pocket watch and later wristwatches did the same thing. 

Alan Lightman: Yes. Well, of course, there were water clocks and sand clocks centuries before the pocket watch, and it may have been the water clocks and and the sand clocks that made the ancient Greeks distinguish between “chronos” and “kairos.” 

Eoin: I just find it really interesting that even shedding your wristwatch, which seems like an old fashioned accoutrement these days in the age of smartphones, even – even losing that this is necessary. 

Alan Lightman: It’s very – yeah, I mean, leaving your wristwatch at home and your iPhone at home is almost subversive. I mean, you’re, you know, challenging the dominant cultural ethos when you do that. But I think to get into this kind of creative space that we’re talking about, or this reflective, creative space, that might be necessary.

[Music]

Eoin: What I find interesting is we’ve been talking a lot about Einstein’s approach to time. And with relativity, we have a coherent theory of time, space, mass, energy, electromagnetism. Ten years later, he incorporated gravity. But famously, it doesn’t quite fit in with another part of physics.

Alan Lightman: Quantum physics. So quantum physics applies everywhere. The laws don’t change. It’s a question of probabilities.  

Time has a very strong direction in our universe. What I mean by that is that if you saw a movie of a glass sitting on the edge of a table and then it fell off and shattered into a lot of pieces, you would say get that looked normal to you. But if you saw a movie of pieces of glass on the floor rushing together and assembling a whole well formed glass that then jumped from the floor up onto the table, you would say that movie was being played backwards in time. The second scenario is certainly allowed by the laws of physics. But the probabilities of that happening on the scale of human beings is tiny. 

When you have five blue marbles and five red marbles and you put them in a box and shake it up, the probability is not that small for the five blue marbles to be on one side of the box and the five red marbles to be on the other side of the box. But if you have a billion red marbles and a billion blue marbles and you put them in the box and shake it up, the probability is extremely small that all the red marbles would be on one side of the box and all the blue marbles on the other side. 

You haven’t changed the laws of science at all. It’s just that that certain phenomena, which are very apparent when you have a microscopic scale, become improbably small when you have a macroscopic scale. 

Rebecca: In “Einstein’s Dreams,” each chapter you change different parameters of time. If you could change a parameter about time in our world, would you want to change anything about how it works?

[Music]

Alan Lightman: Well, I wouldn’t want to change anything about how time works, but I would want to change something about our lifestyle. And I would like our lifestyle to be slower. Because I think that we are losing something very important: the ability to sit in a chair quietly for 10 minutes without any external stimulation. To take a walk and just observe the world around us, without checking our email. To quietly think about what’s important to us and who we are, and it’s the speed of the modern world that has stolen those moments from us. And so if I could change anything about time, I would change something about our lifestyle and just slow down our lifestyle.

Rebecca: It’s interesting because I wonder, you know, if you talk to somebody 200 years ago, if they would have said the same thing about modern life. 

Alan Lightman: I don’t know. I know that Henry David Thoreau felt that communication technology was – was disrupting our lives. Of course, in his day the communication technology was – was the railroad. But the railroad has sped up life enormously. And there’s a great line in “Walden” where he says that we don’t ride the railroad. The railroad rides us. 

Eoin: Thank you so much. This is exactly what we were looking for. 

Alan Lightman: Well, I’m really in total admiration of how much background reading you did. So thank you for that. 

Eoin: It’s been loads of fun. It’s not every journalist who gets to – gets to crack open a paper that was written a hundred and fifteen years ago. Thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it. 

Alan Lightman: Well I appreciate your asking me.

[Music]

Eoin: Thanks for listening. We hope you enjoyed our conversation with Dr. Lightman as much as we did! If you want more, you can go to our website to find an interview I did with him in person a few years back. It’s at csmonitor.com/timebonus.  

Rebecca: And don’t forget to subscribe to “Rethinking the News” wherever you get your podcasts, and leave us a rating or comment!

[Music]

Rebecca: This series is hosted and produced by me, Rebecca Asoulin. My co-host is Eoin O’Carroll. Editing and additional production by Jessica Mendoza and Samantha Laine Perfas. Additional editing by Noelle Swan and Clay Collins. Sound design by Noel Flatt and Morgan Anderson. 

This story was produced by The Christian Science Monitor, copyright 2021.

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