Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman

If someone had told me that Einstein’s Dreams is a book about the various ways one could consider time, whose main character is a fictionalized Albert Einstein, I probably would not have picked up the book. If I had known it was written by a physics professor from MIT, it might have even been intimidating. Luckily, I stumbled across it with only an hour’s worth of free time to kill and saw that it was just small enough to read in one sitting.

For readers who require a considerable plot, dialogue, suspense, or characters that one can become emotionally invested in, this book would not be pleasing. Einstein’s Dreams is more geared toward the bullheaded, inquisitive reader. The way that the book is set up does not allow you to know much about any one character. It comes in sections: a prologue, a considerable number of chapters about time interrupted with three interludes about Lightman’s version of Einstein himself, and an epilogue.

The bits about time are roughly three to five page chapters, each dealing with a What If question…What if you could travel back through time? What if you could only live for one day? What if you knew the exact day the world was going to end? (Maybe we should keep that one in mind for 2012.) The result is creative and intelligent approaches to the same kinds of questions your younger siblings have probably pestered you with. When Lightman plays out these scenarios, the characters all change, with the exceptions being a chemist who works for a pharmaceuticals company and his wife. Both characters are unnamed throughout the novel. The setting remains the same, however, being Berne, Switzerland. All of these mini-stories are meant to be the dreams Einstein is having while he works on his theory of relativity.

The chapters about Einstein don’t give much away about his personal life. This was nice, however, because the less Lightman wrote about Einstein, the less he could potentially misinform the reader. What we do know from this book is historically sound: He worked at a patent office. He was married to a woman named Mileva. He maintained a close friendship with Michele Besso who was also a co-worker.

The style of writing is light and whimsical, not at all what I would have expected from someone who also wrote Great Ideas in Physics. It was an enjoyable read for the most part—but after I read past the halfway point the book got a bit monotonous and dull. Is it fair to recommend the first fifteen chapters of a book and not the rest? Either way, whether you are a person that runs on bodily time or a person that runs on mechanical time, there’s something in this novel for you.

The chapter entitled “3 May 1905” was the one that won me over, where Lightman theorizes on what life would be like if everyone was forced to live in the moment: “It is a world of impulse. It is a world of sincerity. It is a world in which every word spoken speaks just to that moment, every glance given has only one meaning, each touch has no past or no future, each kiss is a kiss of immediacy.”

While this may not be a book that teaches the reader anything scientific, it is surely a book that encourages the reader to rethink the way they live their life.


Christopher said...

I remember seeing this book on my Dad's bookshelf next to Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

Carlton said...

Congrats of the first book of 2008.

Brooke said...

I haven't read that book since high school, but I vaguely remember liking it.

Thank you, Carlton.

Christopher said...

No, it's stupid hippie crap. It's the stuff I became a Republican to spite my Dad for.

Brooke said...

There's the opinionated Chris Chilton I remember. I thought you were a Libertarian? (That is what I registered as, but since they don't count I think I am going to switch over soon. Before the election, you know.)

Christopher said...

I'm a little-l libertarian and a big-R Republican. Libertarians don't get to vote in primaries and all that.