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Book Reviews

Lightman, Alan. Einstein’s Dreams.1993. Sceptre. (ISBN 0 340 75200 9)


This review has been written by Ma³gorzata Zdybiewska, who teaches British Studies at TTC in Radom and is a contributor to the British Studies Web Pages.


The hero of Alan Ligtman’s extraordinary book is Albert Einstein (1879-1955), often regarded as the greatest scientist of the 20th century. German born young Einstein worked as a patent clerk in the Swiss Patent Office between 1902 and 1905. In 1905 he published three outstanding papers dealing with the photoelectric effect, Brownian motion and his special theory of relativity. In Einstein’s theory of relativity the idea of absolute space and time is abandoned as a reference framework for all bodies. Thus a distinction is made between the framework of the observer and that of the object. Being a lecturer in physics himself, Lightman is able to give his readers powerful insight into the mind of a great scientist.


Even in the Prologue Alan Lightman takes the reader on an unusual journey:


“In some distant arcade, a clock tower calls out ix times and then stops. The young man slumps at his desk. He has come to the office at dawn, after another upheaval. His hair is uncombed and his trousers are too big. In his hand he holds twenty crumpled pages, his new theory of time, which he will mail today to the German journal of physics”. (Einstein’s Dreams: 4)


In the following chapters of the novel the readers witness Einstein’s dreams of new worlds: visions of people living in worlds where time is circular, flows backwards, slows down in the mountains or stands still. Let us take for example the world where people live forever. No one dies. People have an infinite numbers of relatives. If a man makes a decision he has to consult it with his parents and grandparents. In such a world nothing is new because all kinds of things have already been done in the past. Nothing is forgotten. Everything is remembered. Every action has to be approved and verified by the experience of others. Therefore life is tentative. To be free one has to die. Such is the cost of immortality.


In this way, the finite has conquered the infinite, millions of autumns have yielded to no autumns, millions of snowfalls have yielded to no snowfalls, millions of admonitions have yielded to none” (Einstein’s Dreams: 122)


Lightman’s prose is sensitive, reflective and poetic. His book – part a novel and part a poetic treaty presents us with a complex picture of a scientist whose visions have the quality of a daydream. Albert Einstein is not a very good clerk. He is much too occupied with his new theory to be able to concentrate on his simple mundane duties in the patent office. His dreams are strange but they have their own inherent logic. Einstein knows that there is no escape from cause and effect. Thus, for example, if time flows backwards, an old woman with wrinkled skin will get younger and younger every day. One day she looks at herself in the mirror and sees that her wrinkles are gone and their hair is no longer grey. She starts going for walks again. Because in this world time goes backward. 


Do we need time? Perhaps it would be easier to live without it. So let us now imagine the world without time. There are only images there:


A child at the seashore, spellbound by her first glimpse of the ocean. A woman standing on a balcony at dawn, her hair down, her loose sleeping silks, her bare feet, her lips.” (“Einstein’s Dreams”: 76)


In consequence nothing happens, nothing moves on and nothing is achieved. In this world there is neither progress nor decline. People are at a standstill. Planets caught in space, oceans in silence.


Einstein’s Dreams” can be read over and over again like a favourite piece of poetry. The reader is drawn into the speculation on the character of time. The book stimulates the intellect and gives food for thought. It can be read both by scientists and readers involved in the humanities. Its passages may provide an excellent starting point for a classroom discussion because its theme is interesting and important to each of us. We cannot forget time. It is something that is always on our mind.

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