On the Art of Imagining in Alan Lightman’s “Einstein’s Dreams”

Alizah Holstein at Literary Hub: I first read Einstein’s Dreams in 1993, very shortly after it was published. The author, Alan Lightman, is a physicist at MIT whose writings have illuminated the intersection of science and the humanities. Einstein’s Dreams, his first work of fiction, explores the variety of dream scenarios that Albert Einstein might have dreamed in the months before submitting his special theory of relativity in June 1905.

Each “dream”—there are thirty—imagines time running in a different fashion and its resulting effect on how people live and experience their lives. They feel philosophical and almost like fables: fantastical but rooted in the concretely familiar. In one, time is like the light that passes between two mirrors, making each individual one of an endless number of copies. In another, time rushes quickly at its outermost edges but stands suspended at its center—those who find refuge there are, as we might guess, parents of small children, and lovers.

When I first read Einstein’s Dreams I was eighteen and had recently finished high school. I recall the feel of the book in my hands. Small, almost square, and slim with its soft-cover flaps, it stood out from my other books. It gave the impression of coming from somewhere else, like a book that had been translated, or imported. I read the book in one sitting while sprawled on my bedroom’s dusty-rose carpet, reading propped up on my elbows.

Re-reading Einstein’s Dreams now, thirty years later, brings back that summer afternoon, a memory so wispy and vaporous that it feels almost like a dream itself. A few long-lost details float to the surface: the way my elbows itched, as I read, from their prolonged contact with the carpet, and the feeling that time was thick and viscous, essentially endless. And isn’t youth, in fact, a dream? Were I a character in Einstein’s Dreams, it would appear to me that between then and now I have jumped from one fable clear into another, so thoroughly has my experience of time been altered.

Returning to the book now, I am struck by this fleeting contact with my younger self. At the same time, new points of interest arise that once eluded me. For one: the author’s age. As it turns out, Lightman was in his early forties when Einstein’s Dreams was published. Ah, midlife! That long moment when even non-scientists might feel compelled to comprehend time. To seek, sometimes with desperation, an answer to that suddenly urgent question: Where has the time gone? How is that I was 24 just yesterday, and 43 today? Can I stop it? Reverse it? Shift it around to my liking? Where is the emergency brake on this train rushing headlong into the night?

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