Matt Manley
Matt Manley

Life, the Universe, and Einstein

Shaking up the Cosmos
August 1, 2005

In this centennial year of Albert Einstein's revolutionary theories of space, time, and gravity, humanities scholars say that his influence extended far beyond science.

Time is a nebulous thing, except maybe for lunchtime. That's a lesson from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the science-fiction romp by Douglas Adams that was thrown into Hollywood's Infinite Improba bility Drive and emerged as an early-summer movie hit.

Consider the elaborately imagined history of the Guide itself, and of its various editors. We learn that one Lig Lury Jr., hired by a publishing consortium operating from a chunk of celestial real estate called Ursa Minor Beta, "never formally resigned his editorship--he merely left his office late one morning, and has never returned since. Though well over a century has now passed, many members of the Guide staff still retain the romantic notion that he has simply popped out for a sandwich and will yet return to put in a solid afternoon's work." In these mysterious circumstances, all subsequent editors have been designated acting editors. And Lig's desk is still preserved the way he left it, with the addition of a small sign that says "LIG LURY JR., EDITOR, MISSING, PRESUMED FED."

Time moves on, for this particular high-velocity editor. Yet time stands still from the perspective of the cohorts he left behind. So it goes in a universe of relativity.

Einstein introduced a notion that has to be considered, well, universally unsettling: Things aren't what they seem to be. As Seymour Mauskopf, a Duke historian of science, puts it, "Einstein is postulating, deducing from his theory, consequences that predict states of affairs that are so counterintuitive as to seem bizarre," such as the idea that distances and durations are not absolute, but are affected by one's motion. "Nobody had done that. And in general relativity, postulating things like the curvature of spacetime. Certainly deducible from general relativity are things like the existence of black holes, which are far beyond anything that any of us, despite the bad movies, can envision."This year is the centennial of Albert Einstein's so-called miracle year, of which relativity was a big piece. At the age of twenty-six, Einstein published one paper demonstrating that electromagnetic radiation is composed of discrete energy units and setting the stage for quantum mechanics; another that, in looking at random motion, provided experimental support for the existence of atoms and molecules; a third outlining special relativity and exploring the observed behavior of physical systems in motion relative to the observer; and a fourth proposing that mass and energy are inter-convertible--the paper that gave rise to the formula E=mc2.

In the old Newtonian system, time and space existed separately from each other and from matter; time was the same in all parts of physical space and so was indifferent, as it were, to where one was located in space. But according to general relativity, time for observers is not the same at all points of physical space; time and space do not behave as if they exist separately from each other and from matter. Instead, time and space merge into spacetime, and spacetime interplays with matter.

Illustration: Matt Manley

Matt Manley.

The more we understand about Einstein's universe, Mauskopf says, the stranger it seems. In conceiving special relativity, Einstein worked from two principles already accepted by the scientific community: first, that all the laws of physics apply universally in all frames of motion; second, that the speed of light is, in vacuo, invariant. "Individually, each principle was unexceptional. It was when they were put together that the trouble began," Mauskopf says. "Their juxtaposition necessitated the abandonment of the intuitive concepts of universal spatial and temporal metrics--Newtonian absolute space and time."

Einstein created a new physics in which the metrics of duration of time, spatial dimension, and material mass were determined by the relative motion of the system of the measurer and that of the system being measured. If they were in motion, an observer in one system, in reference to an observer in another system, "would note a slower passage of time, a contraction of distance, and an increase of mass of objects in the other system," Mauskopf says. Such shifts in physical realities become more pronounced at velocities close to the speed of light.

These projections painted a weird universe indeed. Duke mathematics professor Arlie Petters, who teaches Relativity Theory, says it takes some time for students to digest the theory. (Petters is planning a relativity conference to be held at Duke in the fall; it will involve talks on aspects of special and general relativity along with a competition among student teams challenged to solve relativity problems.) The formula E=mc2 describes mass as having an enormous amount of energy; the energy extracted by a reactor from one kilogram (about two pounds) of enriched uranium oxide can power a 100-watt light bulb for nearly 700 years. Another facet of the theory, Petters says, is that energy has mass--the formula m=E/c2. If you increase the internal energy of any object by heating the object, then the object's mass and, hence, its weight increases--though the weight increase is so tiny that its measurement is outside the scope of current technology.

To incorporate gravity, Einstein had to extend special relativity to an even more remarkable theory, general relativity. "This theory gives us Big-Bang cosmology, which addresses the origin and evolution of the universe, and predicts the existence of black holes and ripples in spacetime," Petters says. A black hole, he explains, is a particularly weird region of spacetime. The gravitational pull is so immense that no observer inside the region can send a signal that reaches the outside world, because the required escape velocity of the signal exceeds the speed of light.

The mathematics of Relativity Theory is equally odd, says Petters. "In high-school geometry, we learned about triangle inequality, which states that a side of a triangle is less than the sum of the other two sides. In special relativity, triangle inequality can be backwards--a side of a triangle can be greater than the sum of the other two sides. The mathematics of general relativity is even stranger and more challenging. It describes the geometric warping of the four-dimensional, spacetime continuum."

Because Einstein's work deals with space, time, and gravity, it touches on issues of broad philosophical appeal. In the view of historian of science Mauskopf, Einstein produced a revolution in how we think about duration, simultaneity, and distance. "In a sense, Relativity Theory marks a significant way station in the information age that we're still in. Biotechnology, computer technology--these are all about information, how information is stored, how it's deployed, be it in genes or in microchips. Special relativity is a paper about how information is transferred from point to point--by light or by electromagnetic waves. In that sense, it's a tract for the twentieth century. This ties in with telegraph signals and telephones and all of the new electromagnetic communication devices."

Literature, in its themes and its style, was also a tract for the twentieth century. Einstein's work paralleled the work of modernist writers who were drawn to new ideas about information and communication, says Priscilla Wald, an English professor at Duke. Wald studies American literature and culture, including the intersections among law, literature, science, and medicine. "When you unmoor a really profound assumption," like the assumed physical reality of the universe, "you're going to unmoor potentially all assumptions," she says. "Relativity is so counterintuitive to our daily experience in the world. That's something that is so highly theoretical, the idea that time is static and not changeable."

Mr. Universe: Einstein, here by Warhol

Mr. Universe: Einstein, here by Warhol
© Andy Warhol Foundation

It's not just that Einstein made the universe more mysterious, she says; he made it more alien. "We have always sought explanations for what we don't understand. In some ways, our explanations have become more precise, but as they've become more precise, they've also become more specialized"--or harder for the non-specialist to fathom.

Echoes of Einstein appear in modernist writers like Virginia Woolf. At least one critic has compared Mrs. Dalloway, built on a plot that has various characters arriving at the same here and now in London, with the convergence of rays of light, each beginning at a different point in space and time.

Wald says that Gertrude Stein was obsessed with time; in her work, characters go through major life transitions, without appearing to leave the present moment. Images and phrases appear in curious juxtapositions--as in a Cubist painting by Pablo Picasso, who was in Stein's intellectual circle, or, conceptually, as with light constituting both waves and particles. "Stein was really trying to unsettle people's belief in any kind of meaning," says Wald. "She was fascinated with time, and imagined time flowing in ways that were not sequential but shaped by multiple influences and in relationship with other realms, including space. Stein tries to go backward and forward at the same time, putting time and space together both as the subject of her poetics and as a kind of formal experiment."

Science fiction is strongly suffused with Einstein's theories, Wald says. Mathematician Arlie Petters considers science fiction, which he has embraced since childhood, a major cultural force in embedding Einstein in popular consciousness. "Star Trek is one of my favorite science-fiction shows, and it has quite a bit of relativity," he says. In his undergraduate relativity class, he touches on designing futuristic spaceships that travel near the speed of light. "There is always some devoted Star Trek fan who instantly proclaims that one must use a fuel consisting of matter and anti-matter. It will produce high-energy radiation that ejects out of the warp-drive engine at the speed of light, causing the spaceship to move near the speed of light." The warp-drive idea, he says, is driven by the Theory of Special Relativity.

But science works its way into popular culture beyond literary experiments and science-fiction speculations. The experimental art of the early twentieth century, and its tendency to re-envision the conventions of representation, might seem akin to Einstein's toppling of long-held notions of physical reality. Picasso and the other Cubists were launching an attack on artistic tradition and at the same time on the forms and traditions of the larger society. As the poet and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire put it, they were looking to "re-order the universe."

In her book Cubism and Culture (co-authored with Duke art historian Mark Antliff), Patricia Leighten, chair of art and art history at Duke, writes about the world of ideas that gave rise to Cubism--the same world of ideas that helped inspire Einstein. Leighten credits art historian Linda Henderson, of the University of Texas at Austin, with disproving a straight-line trajectory between relativity and Cubism; Einstein was dismissive of such a correlation, insisting that relativity doesn't rely on "a multiplicity of systems of coordinates," and so "is quite different [from] Picasso's painting." But the two paths to understanding the universe, scientific and artistic, had similar intellectual origins.

Both Einstein and the Cubists were influenced by the philosopher Henri Bergson and the mathematician Henri PoincarÈ, who argued that the human experiences of time and space were not objective and rational--that they were not uniform for everybody. Such celebrations of subjective experience resulted in three interrelated artistic innovations, Leighten says: the "deformation" of objects in terms of size, shape, and scale; a rejection of Renaissance perspective in favor of "multiple views" and the use of all the senses in apprehending the world; and the conjunction of disparate images in a single composition.

A theorized black hole in space

A theorized black hole in space
© CORBIS

Cubism is important, Leighten says, for enshrining subjective perspective in twentieth-century art--much as Einstein validated the importance of the observer in science. Artists like Picasso and Georges Braque tried to "depict their simultaneous experiences of different views of an object or different aspects of prior knowledge about an object," she says. That is, they incorporated multiple frames of reference, along with materials taken from multiple sources, into a single work. Cubist collage might be the ultimate achievement of the Cubist movement, and it is powerfully "reflective of a world undergoing radical change," she says. The idea of cutting, pasting, assembling, and reassembling a picture of the world from fragments is "an act of liberation" from the conventional notion of naturalistic painting, she says.

Einstein was never comfortable with the physics of probability; he never quite reconciled himself to a probabilistic universe--even as he provided the platform for science to take the leap into quantum physics. Similarly, says Leighten, Picasso helped launch art into the age of abstraction, though pure abstraction, or non-objectivity, was never his aim. An artist like Kazimir Malevich, who reduced painting to white geometric shapes, or Piet Mondrian, whose canvases are laid out as bold lines and colors trapped within those lines, would have been unthinkable without Picasso and the other Cubists. Still, Picasso sought a certain anchoring in subjects and themes, just as Einstein sought the guiding order of a universe that runs according to rules. Picasso's personal collection of art included Edgar Degas, Henri Matisse, Braque--all of whom were revolutionary in their ideas about color and composition, but none of whom quite crossed the border into pure abstraction.

Crossing the border as it does between visual art and movement through space, dance, of all the arts, may have the most tantalizingly close ties to relativity. For the Einstein centennial year, the Institute of Physics in Britain commissioned a dance company to produce a new work based on Einstein's theories. Merce Cunningham, the choreographer, has quoted Einstein's observation that "there are no fixed points in space." He goes on to express fascination with stage space that lacks any fixed points so that "wherever you are...could be a center."

Barbara Dickinson, director of the Dance Program at Duke, sees Cunningham's choreography as linked with the frame-of-reference issues that interested Einstein. Before Cunningham, she says, many choreographers were presenting "a very defined idea that they wanted the audience to get. Cunningham steps way back from this. His stated creed is that there need not be meaning in movement; it is purely movement in space and time."

The dance universe as Cunningham conceived it is full of chance encounters--he would sometimes hinge artistic decisions on rolls of the dice--and indeterminacy. "This element of indeterminacy is extremely difficult to do in performance," says Dickinson. "He would say to the dancers, okay, you can go out and face any direction you want, not necessarily paying attention to the audience out front. Or he'd give them leeway about when they entered the stage and how long they stayed out there." And his dances would accommodate multiple points of view. In one example, "Walkaround Time," choreographed in 1968, the dancers--not the audience members--are given an intermission. "At intermission, they stopped dancing and basically did whatever they wanted," says Dickinson. "Some lolled on stage, some disappeared for ten minutes, but the audience was watching, creating something from this found movement."

In Cunningham's work, then, the flow from movement to movement may be warped rather than linear, subject to quick changes and jerky shifts: By analogy, this is the quantum universe, the universe of random motion. And what is communicated is in large part determined by the observer: This is the universe of special relativity, where the passage of time is a function of factors unique to the observer.

Jean Dubuffet, Tower of Lace, courtesy of the Patsy R. and Raymond D. Nasher Collection

Art: new theories Cubist Dubuffet:
Jean Dubuffet, Tower of Lace, courtesy of the Patsy R. and Raymond D. Nasher Collection

With the passage of time since the 1905 miracle year, the Einstein legacy includes some interesting intersections between science and religion. He didn't just leave us more in awe of the universe, but he also left us in awe of the power of the human mind. More particularly, he left us in awe of the reach of the human imagination. After all, Einstein was less likely to perform computational miracles than to make great leaps of the imagination--envisioning himself, for example, riding on a beam of light. He was doing more than synthesizing empirical evidence. He was inventing analytical frameworks to apply to the most perplexing, if rarely acknowledged, problems.

The universe of Galileo and Newton, which prevailed well into the nineteenth century, was built on the metaphor of a machine. God was seen as the Great Watchmaker. Then came the dramatic developments in theoretical physics, from Einstein and more recent cosmological thinkers, like the string theorists. "And the world becomes a much more mysterious place," observes Kalman Bland, a professor of religion at Duke. "We can know the position of a particle, but we can't know its velocity. Or if we know its velocity, we don't know where it is now. So it's a limit on our ability to know. And the same set of circumstances will not always yield the same consequences."

Einstein had "faith in the intelligibility of the universe," says Bland. Like the seventeenth-century philosopher Spinoza, whom he admired, Einstein equated the discovery of natural law and the discovery of the divine.

"And that for him was the deepest religious impulse. He calls it cosmic religion. So the universe for him was a religious object, but it was religious because of its orderliness and its vulnerability to human understanding. If you're willing to concede that orderliness is itself a mysterious thing, then I think we could say, yes, he discovered the religious mystery of the universe. But I think it would be leading to semantic confusion to think that this is the same kind of mystery that religious people necessarily gravitate to. I think the underlying religious belief is in the limits of the human mind, and that the universe governed by God is not ultimately subject to human analysis. And Einstein believed in the power of the human mind to crack the mysteries."

John Mayrose is working to crack some of the mysteries of music. Mayrose is a Duke graduate student in music composition. For his Ph.D., he is creating a work based on cosmological theories, including Einstein's Theory of Special Relativity. His adviser, Stephen Jaffe, professor of music, describes the work as "something like a concerto grosso, where several different ensembles compete, combine, and collide."

Mayrose discusses the process of composing almost as a scientist would talk about the process of discovery. There's attention to detail and intense concentration, but lots of exercise of imagination and intuition. The work comprises five movements. For the middle movement, inspired by relativity, he says he thought of space in terms of musical notes and time in terms of musical rhythms. In a metaphorical bending of space and time, each of four groups of musical instruments "gradually bends the other groups to what they're doing, and then that group in turn will be bent into a new shape by the other groups." Surrounding relativity are movements inspired by Johannes Kepler, the seventeenth-century astronomer who discovered laws of planetary motion, which he called "harmony of the spheres"; the Uncertainty Principle; supersymmetry; and String Theory.

Mayrose, who teaches courses that thematically blend music with technology and science, says he's read general-interest books on relativity and space-and-time concepts, including works by Stephen Hawking and Brian Greene. And he enjoys mathematics; in the realm of electronic music, he regularly constructs sounds by numbers. But he says it's risky for a generalist to be taking on such a high-powered theory as musical inspiration. Kepler wanted someone to write music based on his ideas, but no one took him up on it, Mayrose says.

One of Mayrose's fascinations is with String Theory, the working title of his composition. String Theory is an effort to frame a unified field theory of physics, which would describe nature's forces within an all-encompassing framework. That was Einstein's ultimate quest. As its proponents see it, String Theory will meld Einstein's Theory of General Relativity and quantum mechanics--seemingly incompatible ways of describing something very large, deformations in spacetime, and something very small, microscopic objects that show the properties of particles in some circumstances and the properties of waves in others.

Brian Greene, the Columbia University physicist and String Theory proponent, who has lectured occasionally at Duke, notes that such cosmological constructs pose enormous challenges to our way of seeing the universe. The emerging idea of the universe, he writes, imagines "loops of strings and oscillating globules, uniting all of creation into vibrational patterns that are meticulously executed in a universe with numerous hidden dimensions capable of undergoing extreme contortions in which their spatial fabric tears apart and then repairs itself."

So Einstein's universe may become even more complicated, even stranger to contemplate. Douglas Adams anticipated that prospect--not without trepidation--in his sequel to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe, titled The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. "There is a theory which states that if anyone discovers exactly what the universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable," he wrote. "There is another which states that this has already happened."