Einstein’s Dreams

Alan Lightman


It’s 1905, and a young Swiss patent clerk sits at his desk in the early morning, thinking about time and drifting off into dreams.

We know what he was thinking, but what was he dreaming?

Alan Lightman’s acclaimed short novel was a publishing blockbuster when it was first released almost twenty years ago, and it hasn’t lost anything with the passage of time. That is, time as we experience it, for Einstein’s Dreams is a book about time, or rather times, about the many kinds of time imagined as those that would be imagined by Einstein as he worked on his first relativity paper.

The design of the novel — short, self-contained chapters that create a world from a single, often quirky, insight — will remind you of David Eagleman’s more recent Sum, which presented forty variations on the afterlife. (Eagleman’s neuroscience primer, Incognito, has been reviewed here separately.)

For my money, Einstein’s Dreams is the better book, not least because I have a lot more interest in real physics than I do in any imaginary heaven. Then there’s the fact that Lightman’s nearly-poetic prose is more accomplished and more aesthetically pleasing than is Eagleman’s more pedestrian writing.

While there are a few less successful chapters that border on the obvious and the banal, for the most part Einstein’s Dreams is an imaginative, sometimes provocative journey through the landscapes of time.

I dare anyone to read the whole book and not find several chapters that fascinate, or sting. More likely, both. A few highlights will help to illustrate. But don’t worry, I won’t do them all. That would take away the pleasure of discovery. Just a few of my favourites.


In the first chapter, Einstein dreams that time is an endlessly repeating circle. When time ends, it doesn’t stop but loops back to the beginning to run again, each time exactly like the times before.

In the world in which time is a circle, every handshake, every kiss, every birth, every word, will be repeated precisely. So too every moment that two friends stop becoming friends, every time that a family is broken because of money, every vicious remark in an argument between spouses, every opportunity denied because of a superior’s jealousy, every promise not kept.

There’s nothing especially sad or terrible about the repeating cycle of time — so long as each time feels like the first time, what’s lost? Yet “Some few people in every town, in their dreams, are vaguely aware that all has occurred in the past. These are the people with unhappy lives, and they sense that their misjudgments and wrong deeds and bad luck have all taken place in the previous loop of time.” And it’s the horror of knowing that it’s all happened before, that it will all happen again, that makes life intolerable for these few.

And it is these double unfortunates who give the only sign that time is a circle. For in each town, late at night, the vacant streets and balconies fill up with their moans.


In another early chapter, Einstein dreams of a world in which effect does not always follow cause. Sometimes, cause follows effect.

Consider a world in which cause and effect are erratic. Sometimes the first precedes the second, sometimes the second the first. Or perhaps cause lies forever in the past while effect in the future, but future and past are entwined.

So much for rationality; so much for intention; so much for the joys of anticipation or the satisfaction of discovery.

In this acausal world, scientists are helpless. Their predictions become postdictions. Their equations become justifications, their logic, illogic. Scientists turn reckless and mutter like gamblers who cannot stop betting. Scientists are buffoons, not because they are rational but because the cosmos is irrational. Or perhaps it is not because the cosmos is irrational but because they are rational. Who can say which, in an acausal world? In this world, artists are joyous. Unpredictability is the life of their paintings, their music, their novels. They delight in events not forecasted, happenings without explanation, retrospective.


One of the most poignant chapters, a section that will resonate with many people who know that it refers to them or to someone they love, describes a world in which some people become frozen, their lives captured by a single moment in time. For these people, there is no hope of human contact, no escape.

The tragedy of this world is that no one is happy, whether stuck in a time of pain or of joy. 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.


Fortunately for the reader, not every chapter is grim or threatening. Some of the time-worlds about which Einstein dreams are humorous, and these sections provide a welcome break from the deeper considerations stirred up by the more serious sections.

One example is a world in which the Second Law of Thermodynamics is firmly reversed, so that time’s passage brings increasing order.

Order is the law of nature, the universal trend, the cosmic direction. If time is an arrow, that arrow points toward order. The future is pattern, organization, union, intensification; the past, randomness, confusion, disintegration, dissipation.

No one in this world worries about being messy or disorganized. Just wait a few minutes, and everything will be fine.

In such a world, people with untidy houses lie in their beds and wait for the forces of nature to jostle the dust from their windowsills and straighten the shoes in their closets. People with untidy affairs may picnic while their calendars become organized, their appointments arranged, their accounts balanced.

Of course, all of this order does get a little annoying, so “in springtime the populace become sick of the order in their lives. In spring, people furiously lay waste to their houses. They sweep in dirt, smash chairs, break windows.” Who wouldn’t?


Two more examples should convince any doubters who remain that Einstein’s Dreams is a special book, one that should be found and read as soon as possible.

In one dreamed world, time slows down the closer you get to its centre. At the centre of time, the one moment that you wish would live forever, lives forever.

Who would make pilgrimage to the center of time? Parents with children, and lovers. And so, at the place where time stands still, one sees parents clutching their children, in a frozen embrace that will never let go. …

And at the place where time stands still, one sees lovers kissing in the shadows of buildings, in a frozen embrace that will never let go. The loved one will never take his arms from where they are now, will never give back the bracelet of memories, will never journey far from his lover, will never place himself in danger in self-sacrifice, will never fail to show his love, will never become jealous, will never fall in love with someone else, will never lose the passion of this instant in time.

But there is a problem. You can either stay in one moment forever, like those frozen in time in an earlier dream world, or return to the world of “real” time and watch your cherished moment disappear forever, never to be experienced again.

And those who return to the outer world … Children grow rapidly, forget the centuries-long embrace from their parents, which to them lasted but seconds. Children become adults, live far from their parents, live in their own houses, learn ways of their own, suffer pain, grow old. …

Lovers who return find their friends are long gone. After all, lifetimes have passed. They move in a world they do not recognize. Lovers who return still embrace in the shadows of buildings, but now their embraces seem empty and alone. Soon they forget the centuries-long promises, which to them lasted only seconds.

What to do? Live the perfect moment forever, and lose life, or live in the changing present and lose the moment?

Some say it is best not to go near the center of time. Life is a vessel of sadness, but it is noble to live life, and without time there is no life. Others disagree. They would rather have an eternity of contentment, even if that eternity were fixed and frozen, like a butterfly mounted in a case.


One more dream, one more time-world. This one is a world in which “time is a line that terminates at the present, both in reality and in the mind.”

In this world, no person can imagine the future. Imagining the future is no more possible than seeing colors beyond violet: the senses cannot conceive what may lie past the visible end of the spectrum. In a world without future, each parting of friends is a death. In a world without future, each loneliness is final. In a world without future, each laugh is the last laugh. In a world without future, beyond the present lies nothingness, and people cling to the present as if hanging from a cliff.

Not knowing, not being able even to consider the consequences of one’s actions paralyzes many people into inaction. But not the lucky ones.

Others leap out of bed in the morning, unconcerned that each action leads into nothingness, unconcerned that they cannot plan out their lives. They live moment to moment, and each moment is full.

A third group, unable to look ahead, gaze backward instead.

Still others substitute the past for the future. They recount each memory, each action taken, each cause and effect, and are fascinated by how events have delivered them to this moment, the last moment of the world, the termination of the line that is time.


And it’s here that I want to stop, because I think that this chapter summarizes in an important sense the ways that we typically live our waking lives. Some of us are afraid to do anything because we might do it wrong. Others buffer themselves against this uncertain future by inhabiting a comfortable memory of a past part of their lives.

And a few, the lucky ones, “live moment to moment, and each moment is full.”


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