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Earthdate 2004-05-08

Robert A. Heinlein and Albert Einstein on Immortality

Noted science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein passed on 16 years ago today.  On this anniversary of his death it's worthy remembering a passage near the end of Heinlein's Farnham's Freehold, where after being returned thousands of years back into the past to arrive before the nuclear conflagration which started the whole story off, Hugh and Barbara Farnham stop by their old household…: 1

The house was brightly lighted.

“Hugh!  Don't do it!”

“Why not?”

“This is my car.  This is the night!

He stared at her for a long moment.  Then he said quietly, “I'm still going to reconnoiter.  You stay here.”

He was back in less than two minutes, jerked open the car door, collapsed onto the seat, let out a gasping sob.

Barbara said, “Darling!  Darling!”

“Oh, my God!”  He choked and caught his breath.  “She's in there!  Grace.  And so am I.”  He dropped his face to the steering wheel and sobbed.

“Hugh.”

“What?  Oh, my God!

“Stop it, Hugh.  I started the engine while you were gone.  […]  Can you drive?”

He sobered down.  “I can drive.”  […]

As he made the turn a clock in the distance bonged the half hour; he glanced at his wrist watch, noted a one-minute difference.  […]  “I'm trying to estimate how far we can go in an hour.  An hour and some minutes.  Do you recall what time the first missile hit us?”

“I think you told me it was eleven-forty-seven.”

“That's my recollection, too.  I'm certain of it, I just wanted it confirmed.  But it all checks.  […]  [T]his looney old character rang the doorbell.  Me, I mean.  And I answered it.  Call it ten-twenty or a little after.  So we just heard half-past chime and my watch agrees.  We've got about seventy-five minutes to get as far from ground zero as possible.”

Barbara made no comment.  Moments later they passed the city limits; Hugh put the speed up from a careful forty-five to an exact sixty-five.

About ten minutes later she said, “Dear?  I'm sorry.  About Karen, I mean.  Not about anything else.”

“I'm not sorry about anything.  No, not about Karen.  Hearing her merry laugh again shook me up, yes.  But now I treasure it.  Barbara, for the first time in my life I have a conviction of immortality.  Karen is alive right now, back there behind us — and yet we saw her die.  So somehow, in some timeless sense, Karen is alive forever, somewhere.  Don't ask me to explain it, but that's how it is.”

“I've always known it, Hugh.  But I didn't dare say so.”

“Dare to say anything, damn it!  I told you that long ago.  So I no longer feel sorrow over Karen.”

Certain passages in Heinlein's books (a certain naivete about relativity) reveal that he wasn't much of an Einstein reader, but it turns out Albert Einstein said much the same thing, in a letter of condolence to the sister and son of his long-time closest friend, upon his death, four weeks before Einstein's own. 2  (Albert's anniversary of passing, by the way, occurred two weeks ago on April 18, 49 years ago.)

Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me.  That means nothing.  People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.

Thus, rest in peace, Heinlein and Einstein; or rather, live where you are — in spacetime.
 
 

UPDATE:  2004-05-23 05:00 UT:  Jeff Soyer at Alphecca has linked to this piece, with the comment:  “By now, most of you know I'm a huge sci-fi reader.  And science reader.  So is Michael at Impearls with this remembrance [pointing here] from Heinlein's Farnham's Freehold on the anniversary of Heinlein's death.

“Naturally, Bill at the Heinlein Blog remembers, too.”  Bill's Heinlein Blog piece, well worth reading in its own right, points in turn to this essay at the Heinlein Society by J. Neil Schulman, which attempts to put Heinlein's work in perspective.
 
 

References

1 Robert A. Heinlein, Farnham's Freehold, The New American Library, Signet Books, New York, 1964; pp. 246-247.

2 Albert Einstein, in a letter of condolence to the sister and son of Michele Besso, Einstein's long-time closest friend, on his death, 4 weeks before Einstein's, 1955.



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