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Einstein's Dreams Paperback – November 9, 2004
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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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top Customer Reviews
As you already know from reading the description, these short fables (the longest one is 4 pages) are alternatives to the way time might function in this universe as imagined by Einstein's dreams as he comes up with the Theory of Relativity. Each universe is unique, and Lightman describes them with such fragrant imagery that the reader cannot help but step into the weird worlds where houses whiz around on wheels or are built on stilts topping the mountains, all in order to gain more time. But at the end of each description, Lightman questions our superficial view of time and the power we allow it to have over us. There was not a single chapter that after reading I did not have to put the book down and collect my thoughts.
This is the sort of book you can read in one sitting or place by your bed in order to ensure fantastic dreams every night for a month--and beyond. Because in the end, time is something we cannot avoid, so why not take some time to think about it?
The author does this by considering different worlds, different realities where time behaves differently. Where time may be spherical in a never-ending loop, or move faster at lower elevations, or be a straight arrow, like it is in our world. Scenarios are given for each concept, using fictional characters and their storylines as the vehicle.
What I didn't expect going into Einstein's Dreams is that it's equally philosophical about humanity as it is about the nature of time. Parallels can be drawn from each scenario: while they are all, on paper, ponder outlandish manifestations of time as promised, they are also about how humans live their lives. It's half a book about imaginative time theories and half a book teaching life lessons from a poignant narrative. I found this odd as you wouldn't think the two would entirely coalesce.
With Einstein's Dreams, that wouldn't be a wrong presumption. When they do blend well, they are thought-provoking. When they don't, they... aren't. The life lessons guised in theories of time range from several being *painfully* transparent, to a few nebulous ones that I couldn't find a moral in, and to some striking a nice cerebral balance, one that I wish the whole book could meet. I had to clock through the more shallow scenarios that were just too... lightweight... saccharine... FLUFF. And yet in other places I found a few great moments of wisdom that I may carry with me into the future. Probably everyone can find at least one musing in this book that speaks to their life and will make them think, though it may take some time searching.
If you're looking for a book about theoretical time and life lessons, then you might want to check this one out since... it's probably the only one of its kind. If you're looking specifically for one or the other, poetics on time or on life, you could find either in better places. As a singular hybrid title that fuses them together, Einstein's Dreams is a unique beast that, while a mixed bag in quality, is a fair way to pass the time.