29
Nov
06

What Spacetime Is It?

PLEASE, MR. EINSTEIN-

By Jean-Claude Carrière. Translated by John Brownjohn.

186 pp. Harcourt. $22. Book Review

In a room somewhere in a building outside of time, for reasons he doesn’t quite understand, Albert Einstein sits and works on his universal plan, plays his violin, puffs a pipe and fends off an outraged Isaac Newton, among other visitors. Into this scene comes an unnamed young woman with a tape recorder, which might or might not work under these circumstances — her watch apparently doesn’t — intent on getting an interview.

This setup didn’t inspire high hopes. Not that I hadn’t often wondered, after years of following physics and even writing a biography that involved serious time with Einstein’s personal correspondence, just what I’d have asked the old man if I’d been granted a one-on-one. If, however, this novel’s opening was just a contrivance to have Einstein explain the laws of physics, I was willing to take a pass. Been there; done that.

But Jean-Claude Carrière comes with some serious mojo as a thinker and writer, having worked with the likes of Peter Brook and Luis Buñuel on films like “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” and “Belle du Jour.” He’s obviously worth risking a few hours with, and I’m happy to report that he far exceeded my meager expectations. “Please, Mr. Einstein,” unobtrusively translated from the French by John Brownjohn, isn’t so much a novel about physics as it is a novel about how people feel about physics — presumably Carrière, who gives his fictional Einstein all the best lines. Some, in fact, are like open doors you could wander through and never come out of: “Being distrustful of those who persistently deceived us, we developed the habit of also distrusting the night, which enshrouded us, or so we thought, in gloom and illusion. We put our faith in light alone.”

In its uncounted hours of conversation, “Please, Mr. Einstein” touches down lightly and charmingly on some of the thorniest philosophical consequences of Einstein’s genius and, by extension, the scientific preoccupations of the 20th century — the nature of reality, the fate of causality, the comprehensibility of nature, the limits of the mind — while scrolling through Einstein’s life. It’s easy to see this novel as the germ of a future playlet or movie along the lines of Steve Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” or the play and movie “Insignificance,” which featured a mythical Einstein in a hotel room with Marilyn Monroe.

I like Carrière’s Einstein. He’s frank, down to earth and not prone to cosmic mustiness. He’s actually worn an Einstein T-shirt and admits he’s happy to be talking to a woman, especially a woman from the 21st century, because that means his godchild, the atomic bomb, hasn’t destroyed civilization — yet. “I think better when eyes like yours are looking at me,” he tells her, “and when I’m talking to them.”

He’s also happy to be able to correct the record on some of his most quoted statements, including my favorite, “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is its comprehensibility.” Now he thinks the opposite might be closer to the truth: “What is comprehensible is that the universe is incomprehensible.”


Among the features of Einstein’s unusual office are doors he seems able to open on any time and place. At one point, discussing his years in Germany, he and his visitor step out into a Nazi book-burning. Another excursion provides the surprising climax to an amusing side plot about Newton, who just doesn’t get relativity and quantum theory and keeps pestering Einstein to explain what was so wrong with the clockwork world he described in the 17th century. Finally, exasperated, Einstein calls Newton over and opens a door on the atomic blast that destroyed Hiroshima. Newton’s wig flutters in the wind from the shock wave. He stares, aghast, then slowly turns transparent and disappears. Newton’s universe is truly, undeniably dead, and so his sojourn in this intellectual aerie is over.

The rest of what you might call a plot is devoted to the skeletal reliving of Einstein’s years and the progression of his quest for the ultimate equation, which leads into deeper and more frustrating questions, none of which will be answered here. “Only the adepts of ignorance consider themselves satisfied once and for all. When one knows nothing, it’s forever,” this Einstein says, perhaps speaking of certain modern political figures. “All knowledge leads to further obscurities, it’s a well-known fact.”

The brick wall that Einstein hit in his own lifetime was quantum theory, with its message that on the atomic level events happen randomly and without explanation. He famously rejected it by saying that God didn’t play dice. Here he elaborates: “You asked me to explain, and I told you that explaining is the hardest thing in the world. Now do you see why? Because I’d have to explain that we must give up explaining. And I never would! It would mean going against all that made up my life.”

It’s hard not to wonder what event or discovery could make Einstein turn pale and disappear, ending his universe as definitely as the atomic massacre in Hiroshima said fini to Newton’s. It could be as incomprehensible to us as calculus is to a dog. It could happen tomorrow or in a hundred years. In the face of this, Einstein shrugs and goes back to work. What else can he do?

In Martin’s play, Einstein and Picasso match wits until they’re both shown up by Elvis, in a show-stopping surprise appearance. I missed seeing Elvis or Marilyn here. Carrière’s slice of the afterlife lacks the kind of cross-cultural mischief that would have put Einstein and science in their place. I love Einstein, and he might be the king of the universe. But he’s still not quite king of the world.

Dennis Overbye is a science correspondent for The Times. His most recent book is “Einstein in Love: A Scientific Romance.”

(c) New York Times

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