Albert Einstein was a patent clerk and young father in 1905, the time setting of Einstein’s Dreams. He comes early to the patent office one morning toward the end of June because he has a manuscript to deliver to the secretary, who types for him in her off hours. His research on magnetism and electricity has made him realize that he must try to understand time in its many dimensions. He is moving rapidly toward articulating his important Theory of Special Relativity, whose formula, E=mc2,is possibly
the scientific formula now best known by laypersons throughout the world.
Alan Lightman’s book—Lightman calls it a novel, although it takes a broad definition to fit the work into that genre—is a fanciful musing based on hard scientific data of which the author, a professor of physics and writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is in excellent command. Presented in diary form comprising thirty entries or intervals, Einstein’s Dreams is printed in an appealing Lilliputian format, so that the volume is little larger than a pack of cigarettes. It begins with a prologue and ends with an epilogue.
Following entries 8, 16, and 24 are interludes in which Einstein talks with his lifelong friend and scientific associate, Michele Angelo Besso (1873-1955). Their conversations revolve around Einstein’s work, health, and unhappy marriage to Mileva Marie’, who at this point has borne Hans Albert, the first of their two children.
The heart of this splendidly lucid, highly imaginative book is the thirty intervals, in which Lightman presents various aspects of time to which Einstein was forced to give serious consideration as he worked toward unraveling the mystery of relativity, whose major dimensions are time and space. Breaking from an entrenched Newtonian physics that viewed space as three- dimensional and time as one-dimensional, Einstein viewed time- space as a coordinated, four-dimensional system.
To arrive at such an insight, Einstein passed through various speculative stages that Lightman explores in his crisply presented text, written with an ease and lucidity that make it accessible to general readers. The book, while scientifically factual, is surrealistic in the way that Alice in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass (1872) by Lewis Carroll (pseudonym of mathematician Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, 1832-1898) are. The May 14 entry in Einstein’s Dreams, which deals with approaching and achieving the center of time, is particularly evocative of these two works by Carroll, who, like Lightman, had a strong scientific orientation. Upon arriving at the center of time, everyone and everything is frozen—presumably for eternity—in a given instant.
Early in the book, Lightman deals with mechanical time versus body time. He divides people into two general types according to which of these two times they naturally follow. The person who follows body time might say something like “I am tired, so I am going to sleep,” while the person who follows mechanical time looks at the clock and says, “It is midnight, so I must go to bed.” The first group of people live according to bodily needs, the second according to external mechanisms.
One is reminded on reading this entry of the Lilliputians’ conclusion in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) when they emptied Gulliver’s pockets. Finding his timepiece they presumed that this strange mechanism was a sort of god to whom Gulliver was beholden. Lightman ends this April 24 entry by saying that both bodily and mechanical times are true, but their truths are different from each other.
The next entry (April 26) deals with the hypothesis that time passes more slowly as one’s distance from Earth’s surface increases. In this whimsical entry, people live as close to the tops of mountains as they can. The very rich ascend the tallest peaks, on which they have their houses built on stilts that extend far up into the sky. Lightman, at his satirical acme, points out that the rich have become so conditioned to living at high altitudes that they have, through the years, forgotten their reasons for living at these heights. They live their elevated lives, prejudiced against those who dwell beneath them, forbidding their offspring to play—and, heaven forfend, to intermarry—with anyone from the lower levels. They endure the cold, perversely reveling in its discomfort for the stoic satisfaction it imparts. Ironically, their lifestyle results in their becoming a scrawny, bony populace that grows old prematurely, thereby defeating the compelling reasons...
(The entire section is 1910 words.)