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Einstein in Alabama

Einstein in Alabama

I had intended to spend an hour or so writing something like a philosophical essay. Really an essay on epistemology and psychology, spirituality and cosmology, kind of. Well, in that ball park. I'm lousy about categories. I also suffer from a delusion of grander, which could be titled maybe Tom the Great Philosopher. I suppose this delusion might be relevant to the following. Whatever.

But then I came out of my burrow for a break and saw a sun setting over Ensenada's Bay of All Saints. Often I watch that spectacle and often too I wonder if any artist could ever reproduce the colors I see. On this particular night they were comprehensible, imaginable, so I didn't ask that particular question. But another question was still there which that sky in the evening always provokes in me. Is that red I see in the sky real? Or is it an illusion?

The illusion answer goes like this. Light -- natural light -- is the combination of three colors and the rest of them are combinations. Red, green, blue: these are real. All else is an illusion created by their mixing. To make nature's deception even worse, the red in the sky isn't there either. Rather, it is a kind of movie show, a projection upon the sky (also part of the illusion, but not relevant here quite) through a prism of thousands of miles of nano particles of dust, with only the reds bending enough to get to our part of the movie screen. Bottom line: there's no red out there, just an appearance. But it gets even worse. There's no red anywhere. There's only electromagnetic waves emanating from matter and feeding into the retinas of our eyes. That, according to the illusion answer, is reality. These sunsets and stuff are a scam.

The "it's really there" answer, one of them, goes like this. What you see is real. True enough, what we think we see is not always real. But the sunset you and everyone else in the world see time and time again -- everyday in fact -- this cannot be an illusion. If it is, everything else must be.

My answer is a bit sneaky and it is not on the side of either, maybe not even a mix of them. It goes something like this. "The whole thing sits on a turtle's back." What? Well, that's what the ancient Vedic philosophers of India said about the physical universe. Their big picture was something like a gigantic thing of no boundaries sitting in something even bigger, which sits in something even bigger, and that goes on forever, and the whole of it sits on the back of a turtle. Something like that is at least my impression of how they thought about the universe. Until this evening, I'd always thought with distaste of that description. To my evil twin, it proved that the Indian peoples really are sweaty, smelly little dark creatures who will steal whatever they can from you and whose philosophy is no better than what you'd expect from such dreadful people. Then it hit me. They're laughing as they say it. A gang of old wise men, sitting on their heels around a ganga pipe and laughing uproariously at all of their science and hard work and above all at themselves. And with that image, a kind of remembrance of the future, I thought of the fact that the ability to laugh at our pictures of the world has yet to come to us Westerners. It's coming I believe, I hope, for I've much optimism for my own people. But we're not there yet. The smelly, dirty little people however, have had that treasure for eons, Western Peoples Standard Time, that ability to laugh at their best shots at explaining the universe.

I like tho' to think that Einstein made it to that place, tho' he didn't advertise the fact for fear of scandalizing a lot of nice people. What else can I make of his response to someone who asked him, "What's all this relativity stuff about, Mr Einstein?" The lady who asked the question was a nice, jolly Alabama matron at a reception for the esteemed doctor, given after an address to one of the U. of A. graduating classes. See it? There he is, little hair-flying-all-over-the-place Albert Einstein and the very proper, very lovable old fat lady, with a glass of chablis in one hand and a grand kid or cigarette in the other, not at all embarrassed by her abysmal ignorance of the world beyond the love of her kids and grand kids.

Frowzy Albert gave an answer which I hope will be with me forever.

"Imagine you are with a friend, someone you like and enjoy very much. The two of you are sitting at your kitchen table, enjoying a bit of schnapps and talking of old times and feeling young again, when one of you asks, 'Gosh, Agnes, what time is it getting to be?' And the other looks at her watch and her mouth flies open and she says, 'It's one thirty!' And you both go, 'Oh my god!'"

And the fat lady laughs and says, "Yeah, I been there. A thousand times!"

And Albert says, "Yes, the time. The three or four hours maybe, it went by as if it were only minutes, say only five."

"Yep!" She laughs.

"Now, imagine you are sitting on the stove in your kitchen. The burners are not lit, certainly, but the oven is and the top of the stove has gotten a little bit hotter than ... what do you Americans say? ... toasty?"

"Yep! Toasty. That's the word for it."

"Well, you're sitting on the stove and ..."

"Why would I do that?" she laughs, and takes another sip of the chablis.

"Well, just imagine it. This is what scientists do sometimes, we imagine something which in the real world is not possible. It helps us sometimes."

"Helps you!"

"Yes. I do anyway. I'm old. It helps me."

"OK," she smiles with an indulgent look on her face.

"Yes, you're sitting on the stove ..."

"OK." The grin of indulgence is getting bigger and seeming maybe to hide a bit of discomfort at the image.

"Yes, you're sitting on it, and you're uncomfortable ..."

"Yep, I would be, if you could get me there." We notice at this point that the look of indulgence for the old man is mixing with something else. Chablis perhaps.

"Yes," continues Albert, now beginning to look down at the floor, with a kind of fierce little stare. "Yes, and after five minutes, your mother lets you get off the stove..."

"My mother?" Now the expression, the one other than the chablis, is saying, "Who the fuck is this? Is this the Einstein guy or some Jew boy that's wandered in for free drinks?"

"Yes, five minutes..."

"Ok, five minutes." The grin is back on her face after another gulp of chablis.

"Yes, after five minutes she lets you off he stove."

"Whew!" Another gulp.

"And how long do you think it would have felt like?"

"Well damn, a hell of a long time!"

"And with your friend, how long was it?" The fabled doctor persisted.

"Well, like just a few minutes almost." The lady came back.

"And the clock on the wall, it said with your friend it was a long time, and on the stove, just five minutes, yes?"

"Well, yeah, but the clock is right, right?"

"Approximately only. Time ran faster with your friend, slower with the stove. That is the reality which my theory tries to get at. What I've just described, about your friend and you, about you and the stove, it's as good a way of putting it as any I know of."

Well, I confess to a bit of embellishment, but otherwise the story is a true one. At any rate, hopefully you get the connection: the old Vedics laughing at the whole shebang and Einstein having his laugh too. And me, I'm wondering if what he was thinking then was something like what I'm thinking now as I look at those reds bubbling up from a black sea into the violets of evening clouds: "Lady, we do our best and we seem to be making progress, but really, who the hell knows anything except, mercy, it's one hell of show!"