Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Einstein's Dreams

Last week, one of my esteemed colleagues in the Education Dept at St. Mike's, Dr Jonathan Silverman, lent me a wonderful little book called Einstein's Dreams. It was wonderful because it is a very small book and took only 2 hours to read, cost only $2 if I want to buy a copy, and because I have never read anything by or about Einstein before.

I read it in 2 hours Sunday morning and had to take notes, 26 notes in all. Small though the book may be it is packed with intense images that force thinking into new and unimaginable ways of perceiving time. Time like a nightingale in a bell jar, time that stands still, is circular and runs in fits and starts.

My favorite, however, comes near the beginning of the book where Lightman describes Einstein's two perceptions of time; mechanical time and body or personal time. Mechanical time is regulated by clocks and watches and is all powerful in determining all sorts of things from when NASA launches rockets to when classes start and finish.

Body or personal time is a function of the individual. One gets up when one wakes, eats when one is hungry, and goes to class when one feels the desire to learn. Well, perhaps the last one is a bit of a stretch but it does illustrate the dilemma that many of us have regarding the personal conflict we often feel between the two times.

My brother has never worn a watch in his life. He's a retired high school chemistry teacher and never felt the need to know the time other than an occasional glance at a school wall clock or punctuating period bell. I now wonder whether he had a wonderful personal clock or whether he just relied on external cues, living his life at the beck and call of others. He lives in the Outer Hebrides so perhaps time really is less consequential there.

Our lives seem to function regardless of the moment in terms of time. We look at the clock not to see what time it is but to see how much time has passed or how much time is left. The moment itself is meaningless; it is merely a referent we use to gather more important information.

I have always thought that time seems to pass much faster the older one gets because each successive year is a smaller fraction of one's life. Perhaps this is what Einstein meant by relativity? I'll make sure I refer to Lightman's book in my math course when we explore ways of teaching children about learning to tell the time.

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