Einstein: The Man and The Genius

Einstein Worried That Science Can't Explain "The Now"

You're reading these words right now.

We can say that even though we don't know when you'll read this. We can't say you read them yesterday, or will read them tomorrow, but we say that right now, you're reading the word "now."That's how special "now" is. And yet, for all the thought that's been devoted to time, science doesn't consider "now" as different from the future or the past. Don't take our word for it — Albert Einstein himself struggled with this conundrum.


Einstein's Worry

In 1963, philosopher Rudolf Carnap recalled a conversation he had with Einstein about what Einstein called "the Now." "Once, Einstein said that the problem of the Now worried him seriously," Carnap wrote. "He explained that the experience of the Now means something special for man, something essentially different from the past and the future, but that this important difference does not and cannot occur within physics. That this experience cannot be grasped by science seemed to him a matter of painful but inevitable resignation." He suspected, Carnap continued, "that there is something essential about the Now which is just outside of the realm of science."

Scientists hardly touched the concept of time until Einstein came along. Though he couldn't explain time itself, he did show some peculiar things about it: that, to a stationary observer, time flows more slowly for a moving object, and that the greater the force of gravity, the slower time flows. But he — and no one since — could explain what made the present moment objectively different than the past or the future.

What's Wrong With Now?

Much of this puzzle comes down to the fact that science centers on objective reality, and the present moment is defined by your experience of it. Because of that, some scientists say the present moment doesn't actually exist at all.

In an article for Nature, physicist N. David Mermin recalled that when he told another physicist that he was writing about "the Now," the physicist responded, "Ah, you're going to explain why we all have that illusion." In his article, Mermin shot back that the present moment isn't an illusion, but evidence that we need to include personal experience in science's physical description of the world. We have no choice, after all: every scientific observation is filtered through our human experience in some way, whether it's the way our eyes work or the quirks of our brains.

Richard Muller, another physicist that has thought about this conundrum, thinks 21st-century science is at the same stage of understanding the Now as it was in its early-20th-century understanding of gravity. Einstein wanted to come up with a single formula that would unify all the forces in the universe but couldn't. That's because there were several other forces we hadn't yet discovered; now, we're finally getting close to explaining gravity.

Likewise, now that we understand more about the way the universe works with respect to space and time, we might have the tools to understand the Now. Whether that understanding gets to an objective truth or gives more credence to the individual experience, well — we'll just have to wait until then is now.

To get a better understanding of everybody's favorite genius, check out the biography "Einstein: His Life and Universe" by Walter Isaacson. The audiobook is free with a trial of Audible.

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