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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: E=Procrastination=mc2

From Washington Lawyer, January 2006

By Jacob A. Stein


This day and age we’re living in gives cause for apprehension, with speed and new invention and things like third dimension. Yet we get a trifle weary of Mr. Einstein’s theory, so we must get down to earth at times, relieve the tension.

Do those words sound familiar? They are the words to the song “As Time Goes By” (You must remember this / A kiss is still a kiss). The wistful 1930s tune revived in the 1940s movie Casablanca with Bogie and Ingrid.

The words came to mind as I watched the National Public Television program about Albert Einstein and the 100th anniversary of E=mc2. I had hoped that, once and for all, I would get an understandable explanation of E=mc2. I knew that E means energy and that m means mass and that c means the speed of light. Beyond that I knew nothing more.

Within the first hour of watching the program I became uneasy. There were the details of Einstein’s private life, a life with the same contradictions and mistakes that we all have, but no understandable explanation of E=mc2. I also heard repeated in a defiant way that nothing can be faster than the speed of light, but nobody explained why. So I got a little weary of Mr. Einstein’s theory and I switched channels to the White Sox–Angels playoffs.

The next day I spoke with a physicist friend and asked if he watched the program. He said he watched for a half-hour, and when Einstein did not get a base hit he turned back to the White Sox. I was not to be put off. I asked him why it is that nothing can be faster than light.

Here is his explanation, which I pass on to you. Assume I have a speed machine that can, in fact, go faster than the speed of light. I get on board and speed back along the light beam that is coming toward me. I go so fast that I go back faster than light. I go so fast I overtake the events of the past. I see myself in H. D. Cooke Grammar School. There are now two of us, the grown man and the callow youth, both together at the same time. Of course this cannot be done, except in the movies.

I next asked my friend, what is energy? He said energy is movement. Everything in the universe is moving. The earth is spinning and moving around the sun, which is moving around all the other constellations. Stillness is an illusion. Nothing stands still. I asked how he connects this up with the so-called general theory. He then took a call on his cell phone.

For a moment I thought I had it. Time and space, and mass and light, and the movement of light and energy, and the atomic bomb that explodes with the speed of light squared, and therefore . . . but I lose the thread.

I took a look at Max Beerbohm’s essay “A Note on the Einstein Theory.” The incomparable Max included in his essay an account by a friend of Einstein’s. This friend said Einstein was a very human person. He liked to play the fiddle. He liked to smoke a pipe and daydream. He was not a man in a hurry about things. Folded into the pages of Beerbohm’s essay was a faded newspaper clipping reporting that Albert Einstein liked to put things off. He was a procrastinator. Once I read that, I felt I knew the man. Was the discovery of E=mc2 Einstein’s way of avoiding the things he should have done? That would be an interesting discovery. I would have liked to cross-examine him on that point. He might be a genius in quantum physics, time, light, and gravity, but no match for me concerning procrastination. I would force him to concede that anyone can do any amount of work provided it’s not work he is supposed to do. My credentials for this assignment are the best. I learned the art of procrastination in the best school there is—practicing law. There is no better place. Lawyers do it. Judges do it. Even law professors up at Yale do it.

The best lawyers I have known are the best at contriving ways to delay making a decision. Experience has taught them not to be in a rush to do anything that can be put off.

One of the causes of procrastination is the deadline. There are hundreds of deadlines hidden in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the Federal Rules of Evidence, the local rules, the chambers rules, the appellate rules, the administrative rules, and the annotations to the rules. The fact that something must be done by a specified date does get things done, but it often works against getting things done. The point was made by Leonard Woolf describing his friend Desmond McCarthy:

[He] told me then that he really suffered from a disease: the moment he knew that he ought to do something, no matter what that something was, he felt absolutely unable to do it and would do anything else in order to prevent himself from doing it. It did not matter what “it” might be; it might be something which he actually wanted to do, but if it was also something which he knew he ought to do, he would find himself doing something which he did not want to do in order to prevent himself doing something which he ought to do and wanted to do.

We learn to delay things, hoping they will work themselves out. What a pleasure it is to have your adversary call and ask you to consent to a continuance, a continuance you desperately needed. Delay cools tempers and opens up additional reasons for delay.

Let me close with some advice. When you realize you are getting caught in a procrastination mental block, you must immediately turn the assignment over to someone else. The person you give the assignment to will do it right away. He has his own mental blocks, and he will welcome an assignment that distracts him from what he should be doing, which for some reason he cannot do. Give me a call and we will work a trade.

Jacob A. Stein can be reached by e-mail at [email protected].