Relativity and regrets

Einstein’s solution to nostalgia

One of the sure signs of success for a newspaper columnist is for an idea they have expressed or a phrase they have coined to survive long after the column has become a fish and chip wrapper. Many years ago, somewhere between twenty and thirty I think, I read an opinion column by Ian Warden, a humorous writer for the Canberra Times, in which he coined the phrase ‘daguerrophobia’. Mr Warden used this phrase to describe the pang of regret he felt when he looked at photos of his young children that had been snapped six months or more earlier, and saw that the children were already noticeably different and more grown-up than they were in the photo, and that they would never be that sweet young age again. If I remember correctly, the column went on to say that he was developing an aversion to looking at photos (‘daguerrotypes’) of his children because he wanted to avoid these pangs.
A quick Google search on daguerrophobia reveals that this coined term never caught on – not a single genuine hit. But it certainly had an effect on me. Over the intervening decades, especially after the birth of my children, this concept of regret for times and events that are gone and will never be again, has come back to me repeatedly. I didn’t suffer from it in the near-paralysing way that Mr Warden described, but it certainly made me think, and caused the odd regret. As far as actions went, it had the opposite effect from that which it had on Mr Warden. I think it was a major motivation in my buying good cameras and taking plenty of photos and videos of my children, as well as making regular entries in an exercise book about their development stages, characteristics and cute (or not so cute) sayings and actions.

But let’s think about the basis of this regret of times lost (this may or may not have some similarity to Marcel Proust’s ‘Remembrance of Things Past’. I don’t know as I haven’t read it). What are we regretting? Think of the joy a parent has when their children are young, sweet, simple and devoted to their parents. After a time, most or all of these characteristics will be replaced by those of a more mature person – simplicity by sophistication, devotion by independence (but hopefully not without affection). But those changes don’t alter the fact that the child did once have those characteristics, and that the parent did obtain happiness from them. That fact is a fact forever, or at least for as long as the parent remembers it, perhaps longer if they write about it.

But I think we can actually take this reality of good times past a step further, with the help of those great theoretical physicists Hermann Minkowski and Albert Einstein. Einstein published what is now known as the ‘Special theory of relativity’ in 1905. The key observations of this theory were that time slows down, lengths are shortened and mass increases for an object in rapid motion, nothing can travel faster than the speed of light and matter can be converted to energy (E=mc2). In 1908, Minkowski observed that Einstein’s theory could be best understood by regarding time and space as part of a unified four-dimensional continuum called ‘spacetime’, rather than as separate concepts. Einstein adopted this idea and it became central to his development of the ‘General theory of relativity’, published in 1915, which explained how the effects of gravity we observe arise from the curvature of spacetime caused by massive objects like the sun or the earth. Black holes are amongst the more exotic and exciting concepts to arise from this theory.

Minkowski’s view of the world as spacetime is very useful for practical calculations in astronomy, rocket science and particle physics, but I think it also has philosophical connotations, for those that are interested in such things. Under Minkowski’s view, our life is a set of events in the four-dimensional spacetime continuum, with no special distinction attached to events that are in the past rather than the present, or indeed in the future. We can view time just like any of the three space dimensions, so that an event in the past is just ‘over there’ on the continuum, separated from our current spacetime position (‘Now’) only by a certain distance in time. Think of it as if you were standing back from your life, admiring it from the outside, taking in the full panorama of events, thoughts and feelings from all the combinations of places and times that make it up. Strictly, you need to enter a five-dimensional world to properly view this curved, four dimensional continuum, just as you need to live in three dimensions in order to read a two-dimensional map. But a little imagination can make up for our lamentable human shortcomings in the dimensions department.

So when you look back on an event, be it a beautiful sunny Sunday morning or your daughter taking her first tottering steps, you don’t have to use the past tense, as in ‘I had a lovely day’ or ‘my daughter was very sweet’. You can use the present tense with equal validity if you think in four dimensions – ‘back then’ becomes ‘over there’. ‘I am having a lovely day on 10th September 1973 – see over there, just down and a bit to the left?’ ‘My daughter’s first steps fill me with joy, see up there, it’s so heart-warming isn’t it?’

This may seem contrived, but it’s not. It takes a bit of practice to think in four dimensions, but you get used to it after a while, and then you realise it’s just as genuine as thinking in three, perhaps more so. The traditional way of looking at time and space is at least as contrived. What, after all, is so special about the present? As soon as you think about it, it’s in the past! There is in popular culture at present a strong understanding of the need to ‘live in the moment’. I understand this to mean it’s wise to extract all the happiness you can from the present moment, rather than placing all your hopes on happiness that you expect to come some time in the future. Good advice, absolutely, but this affirms rather than contradicts the benefit of a four-dimensional view. By making the most of every moment, you are increasing the quality of the continuum that makes up your life path. You will have more happy events to look across at (not just look back on), rather than just one happy event towards the end of the continuum, which after all may not necessarily eventuate.

It’s a bit of a cliché to talk about ‘life’s rich tapestry’. But perhaps it’s also a more user-friendly way of describing the multi-dimensional spacetime continuum that was and is your life. Every bright spot in your life is another ornament on the tapestry, that you can sit back, admire and enjoy whenever you like.

It is regrettably quite common for women at any age over thirty to feel distressed about the fact that their beauty ‘now’ is less than it was ‘earlier’, and that it will be still less ‘later’. Men suffer less from this, but they may still be upset by declining athletic prowess or the fact that they are no longer besieged by offers from eligible women as they were in their early twenties (I speak only from personal experience here, I can’t comment on what others feel). Such distress is illogical and unnecessary. A woman will always have the beauty of her twenty year old self at the part of the continuum/tapestry that holds her twenty-year old self. Why should a woman bemoan at age forty the fact that she will be wrinkly at age seventy any more than she bemoaned it at age sixteen? It is a certainty at both ages. Most women will have beauty at some part of their lives, phasing to less beauty at other parts. The fact that ‘now’ is in one of those parts or the other is unimportant. I cannot run very fast at this point in my tapestry, but that’s all right, because I can run very fast in that part over there where I am twenty-four years old, and win trophies, applause and satisfaction for my efforts.

There is one thing that does distinguish the past from the present or the future though, and that is that we can do nothing to change it. Daguerrophobia may be very real and potent if, when we look at those toddler photos, we are reminded that we hardly spent any time with our young children, that they hardly knew us, and this causes us sorrow. If so then from our perspective it may have been a poor decision to spend so much time away from our children (Not necessarily though. We may have been frequently absent because, as a single parent on a low wage, we had to work long hours to keep the children housed, fed, healthy and educated.  If so, our sorrow at having missed parts of our children’s upbringing will be balanced by the satisfaction in thinking that we have done our best to give them a good start in life). Where we have made poor decisions in the past, we cannot undo them, although we may be able to take measures now to mitigate the effects. Such poor decisions will cause flaws in the tapestry, areas that cause no joy, perhaps even pain, to behold. Everybody has plenty of flaws in their tapestry. Perhaps the tapestry would be rather dull without them. But it’s probably a good guiding principle to do what we can to avoid major flaws. In many cases that involves thinking about how you will feel later about decisions you make now. You could try to avoid needing to say in future ‘I wish I had ……’, where the ellipsis could stand for ‘spent more time with my children’, ‘not given up playing the piano’, ‘been kinder to that unpopular kid in our class’, etc.

Is this way of looking at life selfish? Does it make it all about perfecting your own tapestry, so you can enjoy admiring it, without regard to anyone else? I think the answer to this is no because, unless you are a hermit, your tapestry is inextricably interwoven with those of all the other people with whom you come into contact, or who you otherwise influence. When you step back to look at your tapestry, you are looking at theirs as well, and it will be hard to take any pleasure from the prospect if you don’t see bright spots on the other tapestries that you helped create.

I have been a little loose in describing this as Einstein’s solution to nostalgia, when it was actually Minkowski that thought of it. I have taken artistic licence to call it Einstein’s because everybody has heard of him, whereas generally only physics and maths nerds like me will have heard of Minkowski. And it was after all Einstein that took Minkowski’s ideas and made them famous in the creation of his enormously influential, complex and famous General Theory of Relativity. But that Hermann Minkowski sounds like a pretty wise and cool chap, so let’s have three cheers for him!

Andrew Kirk
July 2010


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