Expanding Perception in Alan Lightman’s Einstein's Dreams

Expanding Perception in Alan Lightman’s Einstein's Dreams

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Expanding Perception in Alan Lightman’s Einstein's Dreams


To attempt to describe Einstein's Dreams would be like trying to explain magic. For example, imagine that a magician holds a ping-pong ball playfully, transferring it from one hand to the other. The magician invites the audience to examine a red silk kerchief that had been neatly tucked into his jacket's front pocket. He then lays the kerchief flat in his left hand and places the ping-pong ball in that kerchief-covered palm. The magician gathers the four corners of the kerchief together, flings it into the air and lets it fall to the floor. He picks up the kerchief and presents it again to the audience for examination: The ping-pong ball is nowhere to be found. Can you say that, from reading this description, you were full of awe and wonder when you discovered the ping-pong ball's disappearance? I would wager that you were not.

If you have ever read Einstein's Dreams, you can appreciate my dilemma. If you have not yet had the opportunity to experience this wonderful novel by Alan Lightman, I guarantee that after you read it you will expand your perception of the nature of time and of human activity. The novel is enchanting. It is a fictional account of what one of the greatest scientific minds dreams as he begins to uncover his theory of relativity.

Whenever I suggest the novel to the uninitiated, they often say that they are not interested in the sciences. This novel is more like art and poetry, I reply. Einstein's Dreams is Lightman's first work of fiction, although he previously wrote at least six books and for several magazines. Lightman currently teaches physics and writing at M.I.T. From these two seemingly conflicting backgrounds come reviews like "A wonderfully odd, clever, mystical book of meditations on time, poetically spare and delightfully fresh" and "Endlessly fascinating. A beguiling inquiry into the not-at-all theoretical, utterly time-tangled, tragic and sublime nature of human life."

Only sixteen of the 179 pages relate to Albert Einstein. The rest of the novel describes some of his "dreams" from April 15 to June 28, 1905. What if time were a circle? What if cause and effect were erratic? What if the passage of time brought increasing order? What if we had no memories? What if time flowed backward? What if we lived for only a day? What if time were measured by quality and not quantity?

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Or, "imagine a world in which there is no time. Only images" (1). You may have asked yourself questions like these in the past, or you may have not. This book answers these questions and more. It may even prompt you to raise similar questions of your own. Regardless, even the most cynical of readers will look at time in a different way.

"14 May 1905. There is a place where time stands still. Raindrops hang motionless in the air.... The aromas of dates, mangoes, coriander, cumin are suspended in space. As a traveler approaches this place from any direction, he moves more and more slowly. His heartbeats grow farther apart, his breathing slackens, his temperature drops, his thoughts diminish, until he reaches dead center and stops. For this is the center of time" (2).

If you get the chance, take a glance at this mystical book. It is a tiny book, a quick read. Even if you think none of these theories are feasible, you will agree with this fact: In our existence, time is limited. Einstein's Dreams helps you value what you may have once taken for granted.

"And so, at the place where time stands still, one sees parents clutching their children, in a frozen embrace that will never let go. The beautiful young daughter with blue eyes and blond hair will never stop smiling the smile she smiles now, will never lose this soft pink glow on her cheeks, will never grow wrinkled or tired, ...will never unlearn what her parents have taught her, ...will never tell her parents that she does not love them, ...will never stop touching her parents as she does now" (3).

"And those who return to the outer world... Children grow rapidly, forget the centuries-long embrace from their parents, which to them lasted but seconds. Children become adults, ...learn ways of their own, suffer pain, grow old. Children curse their parents for trying to hold them forever, curse time for their own wrinkled skin and hoarse voices. These now old children also want to stop time, but at another time. They want to freeze their own children at the center of time" (4).

1: Lightman, Alan. Einstein's Dreams. New York: First Warner Books Printing, 1994. Page 75.

2: _Ibid_, Pages 70-71.

3: _Ibid_, Pages 71-72.

4: _Ibid_, Pages 73-74.



Sources of biographical information for Alan Lightman

Lightman, Alan. Einstein's Dreams. New York: First Warner Books Printing, 1994. Cover.

Helmer, Marguerite. http://www.english.uwosh.edu/einstein/lightman.html
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