Chemical Society Symposium on Solid State Materials

Swirling clock faceA man was in a large hotel in a city he’d never been to, a place with a large glittering lobby with enormous containers of plants in the middle, and with young, attractive men and women working the check-in counter. On the second floor of the hotel, where the public bathrooms of such hotels are always located (to discourage people from coming in off the street to use them), the man was sitting. He was in a balcony area with more plants in large pots, and near the pots were fat chairs unholstered in smooth fabric with stripes. The man sat in a striped chair reading.

He was a chemist, and he was in this fancy, expensive hotel in Chicago attending a conference. He worked for a company in Baltimore that did research on coatings, which can be a complicated topic, but think of things like teflon pans or waterproof coatings. Earlier in the morning, the man had made a presentation at the conference, and for a while he was more or less free, taking a break and reading.

His book was about time, a subject that had fascinated him since he was young. When he was ten he fell out of the treehouse and had the breath knocked out of him, and as he lay on the ground, he had the strange sensation that everything had slowed down. Ever since that day he began thinking about time, what it is, how it works. He almost went into physics in college, but the math classes made him feel like he was being brought down by a stupidity machine gun, so he became a chemist instead.

The book he was reading was called Einstein’s Dreams, a book that combines physics with a kind of fantasy, each tiny chapter describing a different view of what time is. In some chapters time is defined as motion, of various types, in other chapters time consists of memory. As the man read, captivated by the book, he was surprised that there could be so many variations, more than he had ever thought of. The title of the book came from the literary device of pretending that each chapter, each variation on time, occurred in a sequence of dreams of Albert Einstein.

It was a delight for the chemist to see that this short book, which had been recommended by his sister-in-law, could be so enteraining yet also so thought-provoking. He read the chapter describing time as having a center, at some point on the earth, and as people approached that center, time slowed down. The farther from the center, the faster time moved. Like other lovers in the book, the chemist wished that he could go to that center with his wife, that they could stay there young and in love with time barely moving at all.

But of course that was a fantasy and couldn’t happen. On the other hand, he believed that time as we experience it is also an illusion, which is a kind of fantasy, isn’t it? So if we live with one kind of fantasy, why not another? Nice paradox, maybe, to talk about, but the man knew, a little sadly, that no trick with words would help. No amount of thought would change it, and we were trapped in the fantasy of this world, where we would grow old, feel time pass, and then die.

While he was pondering this melancholy inevitability, he stared off the balcony where he sat, watching crowds of chemists in the lobby below, networking, laughing at jokes, rushing off to sessions. All this would pass away, and someday no one would even know they had all been here in this hotel. The man had a sudden strong desire to talk to his wife, but she was at work, and he couldn’t call her until that evening.

The book he was reading was now lying in his lap, and he picked it up again, then glanced at his watch. He wanted to attend another session himself at 11:00, but he could read some more. There was still time.

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