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Whose Einstein? (Who’s Einstein?)

For a concept that underpins much of life as we know it—including, science historian Peter Galison reminded listeners yesterday, GPS and satellite technology—Einstein’s theory of relativity is hard to grasp, at least for this non-physicist. At yesterday’s Institute for the Humanities lecture in Rackham Amphitheatre, Galison laid out both background and context for Einstein’s radical rethinking of time as a relative rather than an absolute phenomenon. Galison revisited some of the myriad way scientists had grappled with the mysteries of time pre-Einstein, including a subterranean Center of Pneumatic Time in late-19th-century Paris, which literally attempted to pump time through the city, leading one poet to complain that the constant pulses of air he was experiencing had sapped his creativity.

Time zones, telegraphed time, Paris vs. Greenwich time, time signals, coordinating clocks at the train station just outside Einstein’s house in Bern: all of these set the stage for the 1905 theory that changed existence as we know it and led, among so much else, to the nuclear age. Galison notes that as early as 1921, Einstein had wormed his way into the minds and work of artists like Hannah Hoch and William Carlos Williams, who saw the then-42-year-old physicist as the emblem of a new modernity. (Galison also played a 1931 recording of Rudy Vallee singing “As Time Goes By,” whose original first stanzas, excluded from Casablanca, pay tribute to Einstein.)

Philip Glass says that as he and Robert Wilson were developing Einstein on the Beach, Wilson remarked that he liked Einstein as a character “because everybody knows who he is.” Glass adds, “In a sense we didn’t need to tell an Einstein story because everyone who eventually saw our Einstein brought their own story with them. … The point about Einstein was clearly not what it ‘meant’ but that it was meaningful as generally experienced by the people who saw it.”

After hearing Galison’s talk yesterday—parts of which I’ll admit sailed right past me—it dawned on me that by sitting through a five-hour production exploring these ideas, by hearing Glass and Wilson speak this Sunday, by attending next week’s Saturday Morning Physics session with Glass, I may finally make some headway toward understanding Einstein’s famous theory—and if not understanding it, at least paying closer attention to the questions it seems to raise. Such as:

• How does Einstein’s theory play out in daily life? How and when and where am I aware of time lengthening or collapsing, and to what effect?
• What happens to time inside a theater? Inside this theater, during a five-hour, non-narrative work with repetitive sequences of image and sound?
• To what extent do I confuse the measurement of time—the clock on my wrist or computer screen, the litany of appointments on my calendar—with actual time? What’s the difference?
• Does technology shorten or lengthen our lives? If, for example, pilots who routinely fly around the world age more slowly than the rest of us, what happens to space travelers? To tweeters? To people who Skype?
• Is it at all possible to move backward in time?