debbie millman

Friday, August 26, 2005

Commentary: Time and Space and Ideas and Emily

I am fascinated by numbers and physics. I have favorite numbers, and numbers that I hate. I think certain numbers are beautiful, like the numbers 8 or 11, and others that I think are awkward or even ugly, like 31 or 47. I like that numbers can signify things—horrible things like 9/11 or provocative things like 69 or semi-ingenious things like the television show 24. I love to follow the stock market, with it’s unpredictable ups and downs, and I am slightly addicted to both roulette and poker, and the momentary suspension of time and belief that gambling on numbers can create as you wait for your particular numbers to come up—or not.

I have become both perplexed and enraptured with some of the more modern theories of physics—string theory being the most interesting and challenging. Over the last few years I have been reading as much as I can on the life and work of Albert Einstein, especially the work after publishing his theory of relativity. During the last three decades of his life, Einstein became obsessed by the dream of producing a unified theory of the laws of physics, an equation that would establish a link between the seemingly unrelated forces of gravity and electromagnetism. He was convinced that this existed, despite all the evidence to the contrary, and the scorn of the science community. When asked about what he was attempting to accomplish with this unifying theory, his response was this: “to understand the mind of God.”

In trying to discover a unifying theory, Einstein hoped to resolve the inherent conflict between the then two competing visions of the universe: the smooth continuum of space-time, where people and stars and planets reign, as explained in his general theory of relativity, and the unseemly animation of the quantum world.

Einstein worked hard on the problem, but success eluded him. That was no surprise to his contemporaries, who saw his quest as a not only indulgent, but ridiculous. They were sure he had gone a little mad, a bit crazy, and was simply wasting his time and diluting his legacy. In contrast to the ideas of the time, Einstein was convinced that in the conflict between quantum mechanics and general relativity, it was the former that constituted the heart of the problem. "I must seem like an ostrich who forever buries its head in the sand” he said near the end of his life.

We know now, however, that it is indeed Einstein's theory of relativity that ultimately did fail. On extremely fine scales, space-time, and thus reality itself, becomes grainy and discontinuous, like a badly overmagnified newspaper photograph. The equations of general relativity simply can't handle such a situation, where the laws of cause and effect break down and particles jump going through the space in between. In such a world, you can only calculate what will probably happen next — which is just what quantum theory is designed to do.

Einstein could never accept that the universe was at its heart a cosmic crapshoot, evident in another of his famous quotes: “God wouldn’t play dice with the universe.” But the mystery he tried to solve is still so utterly fundamental. In simply recognizing the problem, Einstein was so daringly ahead of his time that only now has the rest of physics begun to catch up. A new generation of scientists has at last taken on the challenge of creating a complete theory — one capable of explaining, in Einstein's words, "every element of physical reality." And judging from the progress they have made, the next century could usher in an intellectual revolution even more exciting than the one Einstein helped launch in the early 1900s.

At the heart of all of his endeavors, Einstein used his imagination and will power to come up with his ideas. That is one of the other unifying principles of the universe as we know it—anyone and everyone can use their imaginations to come up with ideas—both little and large--and influence, change or impact the world. Whether is be psychics, art, design, number theory, politics or even gardening. And, to me, that is what makes this particular universe so incredibly special.


Blogger janice41deana said...

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9/26/2005 03:33:00 AM  

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Location: new york city, United States

Debbie Millman has worked in the design business for over 25 years. She is President of the design division at Sterling Brands. She has been there for nearly 15 years and in that time she has worked on the redesign of global brands for Pepsi, Procter & Gamble, Campbell’s, Colgate, Nestle and Hasbro. Prior to Sterling, she was a Senior Vice President at Interbrand and a Marketing Director at Frankfurt Balkind. Debbie is President of the AIGA, the largest professional association for design. She is a contributing editor at Print Magazine, a design writer at and Brand New and Chair of the Masters in Branding Program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. In 2005, she began hosting the first weekly radio talk show about design on the Internet. The show is titled “Design Matters with Debbie Millman” and it is now featured on In addition to “Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essays on the Intersection of Life and Design,” (HOW Books, 2009, she is the author of "How To Think Like A Great Graphic Designer" (Allworth Press, 2007) and “The Essential Principles of Graphic Design” (Rotovision, 2008).

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