Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
"Time, the human dimension, which makes us everything we are."
(Martin Amis, Time's Arrow)
(For once the epigraph is not a quote from the book that I am reviewing.) By a pure coincidence the two books I have read in the recent week are both meditations on the nature of time. In Martin Amis' book (see epigraph) we observe a man's life in reverse, from his death to his birth, with time running backward. Alan Lightman's book Einstein's Dreams (1993) presents many alternative worlds each having a different variant of time, including the one chosen by Mr. Amis.
The year is 1905, the end of June, and Albert Einstein works in the patent office in Bern, Switzerland, evaluating patent applications. He is preparing the manuscript of the groundbreaking paper that introduces his special theory of relativity. He submits the twenty-page paper, On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies to the journal Annalen der Physik on June 30, 1905. Mr. Lightman frames his book as a collection of thirty stories (presumably Albert Einstein's dreams influenced by his work on the theory) that describe what might happen to people in various imaginable worlds that differ as to the nature of their time. For example, one of those 30 parallel universes is a world whose time is discrete rather continuous, with gaps between segments of time. Another one is a world where time stands still in the center point and from there "time travels outward in concentric circles." Yet another world has circular time, where the events repeat themselves precisely and endlessly. Obviously the author also includes time phenomena that are physically observable in our world: gravitational time dilation and relative velocity time dilation, where identical accurate clocks measure time differently depending on their relative speed or location.
Being an applied mathematician I should be very interested in the physical nature of time, but the only aspect of time that really fascinates me is the biological time - the ticking that goes on in the cells in our bodies, the merciless ticking that moves us gradually and inevitably from birth to death. As most people I tend to visualize time as a line on which the past is to the left, the point of the present moves to the right, following the "time's arrow" toward the future. Yet I could as well argue that time, as such, does not exist: the present moment is so infinitesimally short that it does not exist for any practical purpose, the future exists only potentially, as a "maybe", which leaves the past. But how does past exist? How do my mother and grandmother exist? Not in any real sense other than in my and other people's memories. The past is just a set of fuzzy images of moments long gone in the minds of people who have not yet died.
Mr. Lightman writes beautifully about that aspect of time, about the past and memories. I find three passages in the book exceptionally moving: one is about the center of time where it stands still and where parents are "clutching their children, in a frozen embrace that will never let go". In the other one old people, who have no one and nothing but memories, sit in the dark discovering that all they have, their entire universe is disappearing into nothingness. And probably the most expressive one about people trying to capture single happy moments of time as if they were trying to catch skittish birds. These three extraordinarily powerful passages are the highpoints of the book: they deal with the essence of what it means to be human.
I would like to thank Paine, my Goodreads friend (and, I hope also a real-life friend, although we have had some history, insert a big smiley here) for recommending Einstein's Dreams. It is a fantastically interesting book, and I loved reading it and re-reading the beautiful passages several times. If I am not rating it higher it is only because I am a picky, fussy, and hard to please old grouch and grumbler. Thank you, Paine!
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