Alan Lightman

Einstein’s Dreams

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Einstein’s Dreams Summary

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In his novel In Einstein’s Dreams (1993), Alan Lightman imagines a series of dreams of the famed scientist. Lightman, who is an astrophysicist, brings his unique expertise to the novel. The novel is set in Berne, Switzerland in the spring of 1905. Einstein is twenty-six years old, working as a patent clerk by day and working on his special theory of relativity in his free time. As he sleeps, Einstein dreams about physics, time and relativity.

In real life, 1905 was a significant year for Einstein. Over the course of the year, he published four groundbreaking papers on physics. These papers helped to transform scientific thought in the twentieth century. In his third paper, “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies,” published in June 1905, he proposed the special theory of relativity. The special theory of relativity proposes that time and distance are not absolute. Einstein wrote the paper over a period of five to seven weeks.

Alan Lightman imagines the young Albert Einstein’s dreams during the time he is working on the special theory of relativity. The novel begins and ends on the day in June 1905 when Einstein gives his paper on the special theory of relativity to a typist so that he can submit it for publication.

Even though Einstein’s name is in the title of the novel, the famed scientist does not appear on a regular basis in the story. Sometimes, we see him a young man playing the violin. At other times, he appears as a patent clerk.

The novel, written in the present tense, comprises thirty chapters. Each chapter is a journal entry of a different dream. Each dream explores the concept of time. The chapters are titled with the date the dream occurred.

Lightman also includes a prelude, three interludes, and an epilogue. In the interludes, Einstein is with his friend, Michele Besso, a Swiss/Italian engineer. The two men have known each other since their college days. Besso was Einstein’s closest friend and greatly admired his work. Besso served as a sounding board for his ideas. Even though the brilliant Einstein can be distant, the two men have a strong emotional connection. In the first interlude, Einstein shares with Besso that he hopes to become closer to God through his scientific work on time. In the second interlude, Besso is concerned about his friend’s health while they are together at a café. Besso also worries that his friend’s work is distancing him from his wife and family. He asks Einstein why he got married if he is not going to spend any time with his wife. In the third and final interlude, the two men fish together in a boat on a river. While looking at the clouds in the sky, Einstein almost tells Besso about his time-related dreams.

In the prologue, an exhausted Einstein greets the break of dawn at his job in the patent office at 6:10 a.m. in June 1905. For the last few months, his dreams about time have influenced his research. On his desk is his handwritten paper on the theory of relativity. Einstein is going to give the papers to a typist so that he can submit his work.

Lightman now takes us into the series of dreams that take place over seventy-six days. Each dream begins by explaining the principle of time that will be depicted in the dream. Every dream also includes unnamed Dream Figures. The Dream Figure characters represent the scope of humanity instead of a single individual. Time theories depicted come from both science, such as Isaac Newton’s concept of absolute time or Einstein’s own special theory of relativity, as well as from Christian theology. Many of the dreams ponder if humans have free will if we cannot control the continuous passage of time. The dreams also explore the scientific principle of cause and effect.

14 April 1905: In this first dream, a woman watches her husband die of cancer. Time, in this dream, is an infinite loop bending back on itself. Every moment in our lives has happened before and will happen again. We will experience the good and bad moments in life again and again.

28 June 1905: In the final dream, birds represent time. Picnickers try to catch the birds. Young children are able to do so but they do not want to stop time. To them, time moves too slowly. Older people wish they could pause time but they are unable to catch the birds. A few adults focus on the present moment when they do succeed in catching a bird. They know that time will go on and, eventually, the bird will die.

In the epilogue, we return to the patent office. The typist enters at 8 a.m. Einstein gives her his handwritten paper to type.

Alan Lightman combines his long-term love of the arts and science in his career as a physicist, writer, and social entrepreneur. He earned his Ph.D. in theoretical physics from the California Institute of Technology. He has served as a faculty member at Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At MIT, he helps to bridge the gap between science and humanities as the first professor to work as a professor in both disciplines. As a scientist, he has made important discoveries about black holes.