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Einstein's Dreams Paperback – February 1, 1994

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

If you liked the eerie whimsy of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, Steven Millhauser's Little Kingdoms, or Jorge Luis Borges's Labyrinths, you will love Alan Lightman's ethereal yet down-to-earth book Einstein's Dreams. Lightman teaches physics and writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, helping bridge the light-year-size gap between science and the humanities, the enemy camps C.P. Snow famously called The Two Cultures.

Einstein's Dreams became a bestseller by delighting both scientists and humanists. It is technically a novel. Lightman uses simple, lyrical, and literal details to locate Einstein precisely in a place and time--Berne, Switzerland, spring 1905, when he was a patent clerk privately working on his bizarre, unheard-of theory of relativity. The town he perceives is vividly described, but the waking Einstein is a bit player in this drama.

The book takes flight when Einstein takes to his bed and we share his dreams, 30 little fables about places where time behaves quite differently. In one world, time is circular; in another a man is occasionally plucked from the present and deposited in the past: "He is agonized. For if he makes the slightest alteration in anything, he may destroy the future ... he is forced to witness events without being part of them ... an inert gas, a ghost ... an exile of time." The dreams in which time flows backward are far more sophisticated than the time-tripping scenes in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, though science-fiction fans may yearn for a sustained yarn, which Lightman declines to provide. His purpose is simply to study the different kinds of time in Einstein's mind, each with its own lucid consequences. In their tone and quiet logic, Lightman's fables come off like Bach variations played on an exquisite harpsichord. People live for one day or eternity, and they respond intelligibly to each unique set of circumstances. Raindrops hang in the air in a place of frozen time; in another place everyone knows one year in advance exactly when the world will end, and acts accordingly.

"Consider a world in which cause and effect are erratic," writes Lightman. "Scientists turn reckless and mutter like gamblers who cannot stop betting.... In this world, artists are joyous." In another dream, time slows with altitude, causing rich folks to build stilt homes on mountaintops, seeking eternal youth and scorning the swiftly aging poor folk below. Forgetting eventually how they got there and why they subsist on "all but the most gossamer food," the higher-ups at length "become thin like the air, bony, old before their time."

There is no plot in this small volume--it's more like a poetry collection than a novel. Like Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, it's a mind-stretching meditation by a scientist who's been to the far edge of physics and is back with wilder tales than Marco Polo's. And unlike many admirers of Hawking, readers of Einstein's Dreams have a high probability of actually finishing it.

From Publishers Weekly

This beguiling first novel--a 16-week PW bestseller--envisions a series of fables about the nature of time that Einstein might have dreamt while putting the final touches on his theory of relativity.
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 179 pages
  • Publisher: Warner Books; 1st edition (February 1, 1994)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0446670111
  • ISBN-13: 978-0446670111
  • Product Dimensions: 4.1 x 0.6 x 6.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (360 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #247,119 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Alan Lightman, a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences since 1996, is adjunct professor of humanities at MIT. He is the author of several books on science, including "Ancient Light: Our Changing View of the Universe" (1991) and "Origins: The Lives and Worlds of Modern Cosmologists" (with R. Brawer, 1990). His works of fiction include "Einstein's Dreams" (1993), "The Diagnosis" (2000), which was a finalist for the National Book Award, and, most recently, "Reunion" (2003).

Customer Reviews

I have read the book 4 times, and bought innumerable copies to give to friends.
Einstein's Dreams is a downright frightening work of genius, and the beautiful simplicity of Lightman's writing style begs for a second or even third read.
Gianmarco Manzione
You need to read each chapter, put the book down, and spend some time thinking about it.
James Parsons

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

204 of 223 people found the following review helpful By Tracy Rowan TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on May 11, 2004
Format: Paperback
I've read through about a dozen reviews so far and I'm rather surprised that no one seems to have gone beyond the obvious discussion of this book. We all see that these are interesting vignettes about how time might behave in different realities. But beyond that, these are vignettes about how we live. Take, for example, the vignette about the world where you can gain time by moving faster and faster. Because time is money, businesses fly about the town on wheels, powered by huge engines. Inside the office building, desks zip around each floor. The faster the workers move, the greater their productivity. There is one problem though, that of perception of the velocity of others. And sometimes a worker will become so upset by his perception that others are moving faster than he is, he will stop moving at all. He will retire to his home, pull down the shades and live within his family. Live a simple, content life without all the rushing about. This is a pretty clear metaphor for the increasing speed at which we live, and those who reject the need to live in that manner.
Some vignettes are simple to interpret -- the world where time moves more and more slowly until, as you get to the center of the town, it almost stops. People go there to preserve a childhood, a love, their lives. A kiss can be nearly infinite. Children grow more slowly than redwoods, and never lose their innocence. Some are more difficult. But each one carries some deeper meaning about human life, and how we choose to live it. And the narrative of Einstein as a patent clerk echoes those ideas, as you watch the choices he's made.
This book isn't simply about bringing together science and literature, it's about science and philosophy, science and human nature. It's about how each of us lives so differently, we might all be living in a different temporal reality. Quite simply, it's a wonderful book, that will make you think, and stay with you for a long time. Highly recommended.
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35 of 35 people found the following review helpful By Donald Mitchell HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on November 13, 2001
Format: Hardcover
This book deserves many more than five stars for its potential to make you a better thinker!!
One of the most creative people I know (holder of dozens of patents that have created two new industries) first told me about this book. He said that Einstein's Dreams was better for stimulating new ideas than any other book he had ever read. Naturally, I added the book to my list . . . but didn't get around to it right away. That was a mistake! I found Einstein's Dreams better for stimulating creativity than all other creativity books I have read combined. I wish I had read Einstein's Dreams when it first came out.
Einstein, of course, was famous for this "thought experiments" in which he would imagine what would happen if he were placed in different circumstances. For example, what if he were riding on a photon of light? What would happen if he shined a flashlight ahead of him? How would someone riding on a parallel photon of light perceive his flashlight if he flashed it toward the other person?
The result of most of these thought experiments was to understand the nature of time, and to create his famous special and general theories of relativity. (If you want to know more about this subject, be sure to check out Professor Stephen Hawking's latest, The Universe in a Nutshell.)
Alan Lightman has created a novel built around 30 "dreams" (or scenarios) that make differing assumptions about time, and describe how the lives of ordinary people living in Switzerland in 1905 would be changed. In the process, you will probably have several epiphanies. For example, so much of the way we run our lives depends on the fact that time runs forward in what normally seems like a linear, predictable way . . . but without giving us certainty about what happens next in our lives.
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81 of 89 people found the following review helpful By Christian Engler on February 14, 2000
Format: Paperback
Alan Lightman's Einstein's Dreams is essentially a book on physics that is explained through literary technique: the novel. Each chapter is a new date in time that explains vast possibilities of what time is and could be. Time is past, present and future. What if people lived only in the past and never had to deal with the future or those who lived in the future and never had to worry about the past? Or those who just lived in the present and never heard of a past or future? Lightman explores what each one means on an individual basis and how it could affect humanity if only one existed and not the others. The reader will discover the awe of what Einstein knew when he himself came to these revelations -- perhaps a little less grand in scale. Past, present and future are all interconnected; they can't be mitigated in terms of 'more important' vs. 'less important.' That simply does not exist in Einstein's Dreams, literally. The author looks at each individual case in every chapter and shows the beauty of living a life only in the past or present or future. But he also shows the unpleasantness of it. Thus, he makes the reader appreciate the actuality of physics and how it functions in everyday life. The scenes of where all this theory manifests itself is a little European village near the Alps, the River Aare and the Marktgasse (street) nearby where Einstein has his office. The European and descriptive flavor that is added to the simple and uncluttered language makes the story more quaint, insular and easy to grasp. At the close, the book becomes a wonderful, soaring learning and reading experience.
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