Patent Time

2016-04-16 04.49.22

During a recent trip, I stopped off at the apartment in Bern where Einstein lived when he worked as a patent clerk. It’s now a small museum, including a desk with this broken clock in it. The clock seemed especially poignant since Einstein’s research involved a fundamental rethinking of the nature of time.

Einstein famously worked by inventing his own thought experiments, or imagination games, including scenarios that involved clocks traveling on trains or hurtling through space at nearly, but not quite, the speed of light. Time and space are tricky to think about. On the one hand, they are known through media–in this case the clock, a measuring device, but also potentially through dreams, souvenirs, stories, and still other means. On the other hand, time and space can’t be reduced to the ways or objects that are used to know them.

Right now Willem Schinkel and I are writing about the problematic idea that the universe is a giant computer, drawing on articles like the pieces by Ken Wharton and Louise Barrett. Since computers are used to know the universe–or if you prefer, the multiverse–then some people assume that the universe itself is a giant computer. Since data are used to understand people, likewise some people claim that humans are nothing but data points. Similarly, Margaret Thatcher famously quipped that “there’s no such thing as society”, but only a collection of individuals. But that’s like suggesting that the entire history and culture of a nation can be reduced to its population count. Certainly population tells us something, but not everything that could be told. And even everything that ‘could be told’ might not fully capture what a nation is, was, or might be.

The idea that a measuring device is identical to what is measured seems to stem from a need for the world to make sense as we know it, for it exist as we perceive it to be. It may stem from the inability to know something other than by, well, trying to know it through numbers, stories, or imagination. But to my mind, such a reductionist tendency provides a meagre and rather depressing picture of worlds, worlds that can be so much grander than anything we understand so far, and possibly that we could understand.

To understand time, Einstein looked to the devices used to measure it. He imagined what happened to clocks in the world, on spaceships and trains. He believed that there was a design to the universe, but he also knew he hadn’t found it definitively. Einstein turned down the presidency of Israel in 1952, arguing that his expertise as perhaps the world’s most famous physicist didn’t necessarily grant him an understanding of people and society. Even so, Bertrand Russel also wondered what history might have been like if Einstein had been listened to more carefully on political issues. Regardless, it’s unlikely that he would have ever assumed that the world is simply a giant clock, sitting miraculously somewhere on an overlooked shelf.


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