Ways of Deforming Time

Jeremy Bernstein

Twenty-odd years ago Walter Isaacson told me he was going to write a biography of Einstein. I had got to know him in Aspen, Colorado, where he ran the Aspen Institute and I was the resident summer officer at the Aspen Centre for Physics. I liked Walter but had some difficulty taking him entirely seriously. He flourished among the celebrated people that he brought to Aspen, including the Dalai Lama. As far as I knew he had no background in physics. For him to write about Einstein seemed to me like someone who was tone deaf writing about Mozart. I vaguely remember his proposing some sort of collaboration which did not interest me, but I did answer his questions about the physics. I was wary about the project and when the book came out, to generally very favourable reviews, I decided not to read it.

But recently I thought I’d look at it to see if there was anything about a connection between Einstein and Proust. Sure enough there was a letter I had never heard of that Proust wrote to a physicist friend in 1921: ‘How I would love to speak to you about Einstein. I do not understand a single word of his theories, not knowing algebra. [Nevertheless] it seems to me we have analogous ways of deforming Time.’ In understanding Einstein, algebra is the least of it.

I had never seen this letter before and I was so impressed by this bit of scholarship that at long last I decided to read Walter’s book. I am very glad I did. It is truly superb. I would have written the physics differently but most of what he has is correct and clearly it was vetted by very good people who are acknowledged. I am acknowledged too: ‘And Jeremy Bernstein, who has written many fine books on Einstein, warned me how difficult the science would be. He was right, and I am grateful for that as well.’

Discussing Einstein’s retreat from pacifism after the rise of Hitler, Isaacson quotes from several of the letters he wrote in the early 1930s after fleeing from Germany, to explain the change in his views. ‘I am the same ardent pacifist that I was before,’ he said to one correspondent. ‘But I believe that we can advocate refusing military service only when the military threat from aggressive dictators toward democratic counties has ceased to exist.’ Isaacson says this letter was written to an ‘upset rabbi in Rochester’. A glance at the endnote confirms that it was to my father.


  • 26 January 2021 at 3:09pm
    Joe Morison says:
    I’m not aware of Proust ever thinking about time in the future, he always looked back, but he would have loved the way Einstein’s view of time makes the past more real. After all, Marcel is literature’s greatest time traveller - that’s why I’d like to see Dr. Who meet him in one of their stories.

    (There’s a typo in Proust’s letter ‘this theories’.)