Einstein’s Dreams

by Alan P. Lightman

Einstein’s Dreams is historical fiction based on Albert Einstein’s study of the relativity of time, or time dilation.  The book is formatted like a journal of Einstein’s dreams about 30 imaginary worlds where time functions differently. The book was written by Alan Lightman, a physicist and humanities professor at MIT. The author embeds observations on human behavior in  these stories.

Here are some highlights.

“At some time in the past, scientists discovered that time flows more slowly the farther from the center of the earth.” Now all houses are built on top of mountains. “People most eager to live longest have built their houses on the highest stilts… In time, people have forgotten the reason why higher is better. Nonetheless, they continue to live on the mountains… [and] teach their children to shun other children from low elevations. They tolerate the cold of the mountains by habit and enjoy the discomfort as part of their breeding. They have even convinced themselves that thin air is good for their bodies and, following that logic, have gone on spare diets, refusing all but the most gossamer food. At length, the populace have become thin like the air, bony, old before their time.”

“Time passes more slowly for people in motion. Thus everyone travels at high velocity, to gain time… Since time is money, financial considerations alone dictate that each brokerage house, each manufacturing plant, each grocer’s shop constantly travel as rapidly as possible, to achieve advantage over their competitors. Such buildings are fitted with giant engines of propulsion and are never at rest.”

What if the texture of time is sticky? “Portions of towns become stuck in some moment in history and do not get out… The tragedy of this world is that everyone is alone. For a life in the past cannot be shared with the present. Each person who gets stuck in time gets stuck alone.”

“Trap one of these nightingales beneath a bell jar and time stops… In truth, these birds are rarely caught. The children, who alone have the speed to catch birds, have no desire to stop time. For the children, time moves too slowly already… The elderly desperately wish to halt time, but are much too slow and fatigued to entrap any bird.”

“The passage of time brings increasing order… When a wind blows gently through the street, the street is swept clean, the dirt and dust transported to the edge of town… Missing socks reappear… In springtime the populace become sick of the order in the lives… They sweep in dirt, smash chairs, break windows… This hysterical abandon continues until summer, when people regain their senses and return to order.” Like Spring cleaning, only in reverse.

“Imagine a world in which people live just one day. Either the rate of heartbeats and breathing is speeded up so that an entire lifetime is compressed to the space of one turn of the earth on its axis—or the rotation of the earth is slowed to such a low gear that one complete revolution occupies a whole human lifetime. Either interpretation is valid. In either case, a man or woman sees one sunrise, one sunset.” People who begin their life in darkness lead very different lives than those to grow up accustomed to the daylight.

“In a world without future, each parting of friends is a death… People cling to the present as if hanging from a cliff… In a world without future, each moment is the end of the world… The young man…marvels at how the world ends in rain… After twenty minutes, the storm cloud passes, the rain stops, and the sky brightens. The young man returns to his table, marvels that the world ends in sunlight.”

“Time is a visible dimension… A young woman… rushes straight to the future. She rushes past one year ahead, five years, ten years, twenty years, finally puts on the brakes. But she is moving so fast that she cannot slow down until she is fifty years old. Events have raced by her vision and barely been seen.”

“The future is fixed… We are spectators of our lives… In a world of fixed future, there can be no right or wrong. Right and wrong demand freedom of choice, but if each action is already chosen, there can be no freedom of choice. In a world of fixed future, no person is responsible… He breathes the moist air and feels oddly free to do as he pleases, free in a world without freedom.”

Time is a quality rather than a quantity.

Time is sense, like taste or smell.

Time is discontinuous, like nerve synapses.

“Time travels outward in concentric circles—at rest at the center, slowly picking up speed at greater diameters.”

Time has three dimensions and all three chains of events happen simultaneously.

Suppose that people live forever.

Time is a circle. “All things now happening happened a million times before.”

People have no memories. “When it is time to return home at the end of the day, each person consults his address book to learn where he lives.”

Lightman, Alan P. Einstein’s Dreams. New York: Pantheon Books, 1993. Buy from Amazon.com

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