I recently looked at Walter Isaacson’s biography of Einstein to see if there was anything about a connection with 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 this theories, not knowing algebra. [Nevertheless] it seems to me we have an analogous ways of deforming Time.’ In understanding Einstein, algebra is the least of it.
I am rereading Proust. If anyone asks why, I tell them the story of Franklin Roosevelt and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Roosevelt paid a visit to the aged Holmes to find him reading Plato in Greek. He asked him why and Holmes replied: ‘To improve my mind, Mr President.’
In the early 1970s I wrote a profile of Albert Einstein for the New Yorker. I had known his secretary Helen Dukas since my days at the Institute for Advanced Study. She had come with him when he emigrated from Germany and lived in the Einsteins’ house in Princeton, which after his death she shared with his stepdaughter Margot. I asked if I could visit the house. She agreed. In Einstein’s study there was an etching of James Clerk Maxwell and one of Newton which had come out of its frame. This seemed symbolically correct. Helen offered to make lunch and while she was preparing the sandwiches she gave me a book to look at. It included a letter Einstein sent from Brussels to his wife Elsa in 1930.
One of the T-shirts you’ll see quite often around MIT says: ‘Speed limit: 186,000 miles per second. It’s not just a good idea. It’s the law.’ The speed in question is the speed of light, and the law comes from Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. Relativity is predicated on the notion that the speed of light is unsurpassable, and most of modern physics is predicated on relativity. So this morning’s announcement that a team of physicists at CERN may have measured tiny particles, known as neutrinos, travelling faster than light has the potential to eclipse all other news that ever has or may yet come out of CERN – Higgs particles, supersymmetry and all else combined. The key word, though, is ‘potential’. By the physicists’ own reckoning, their results require a lot more scrutiny before anyone concludes that physics has one fewer leg to stand on.