Einstein’s Dreams

Some time ago, I was fortunate to meet Len Shustek. During our conversation about museums, computer science, physics and books etc, Len recommended to me the novel Einstein’s Dreams written by physicist Alan Lightman. I am grateful to Len for introducing me to this book and for the discussion.

Naturally, I was curious about the writer Alan Lightman. How fascinating and inspiring that Alan is a novelist, essayist, physicist and educator. This is yet another strong evidence that we are only limited by our own thinking.

The novel presents 30 fictional dreams by young Albert Einstein while he was working on the theory of relativity in 1905. Each dream describes the experience of time. There are also a prologue, three interludes and an epilogue framing the book. I found these dreams are very thought provoking and Alan’s writing is beautifully artistic. Here are the summary and excerpts of the time world in Einstein’s Dreams from the book.

14 April 1905 Time is a circle, bending back on itself. The world repeats itself, precisely and endlessly; our experience repeats itself endlessly. All things will be repeated in future, all things now happening happened a million times before.

16 April 1905 Time is like a flow of water, occasionally displaced by a bit of debris, a passing breeze. Now and then, some cosmic disturbance will cause a rivulet of time to turn away from the mainstream, to make connection backstream. People sometimes are transported back in time.

19 April 1905 Time has three dimensions, like space. Just as an object may move in three perpendicular directions, corresponding to horizontal, vertical and longitudinal, so an object may participate in three perpendicular futures. Each future moves in a different direction of time.

24 April 1905 There are two times: mechanical and body time. Mechanical time is as rigid and metallic as a massive pendulum of iron that swings back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. The second squirms and wriggles like a bluefish in a bay. The first is unyielding, predetermined. The second makes up its mind as it goes along…Where the two times meet, desperation. Where the two times go their separate ways, contentment…Each time is true, but the truths are not the same.

26 April 1905 Time flows more slowly the farther from the center of the earth. People move to the mountains and live in houses built on stilts to stay young.

28 April 1905  A second is a second is a second. Time paces forward with exquisite regularity, at precisely the same velocity in every corner of space. Time is an infinite ruler. Time is absolute…A world in which time is absolute is a world of consolation. For while the movements of people are unpredictable, the movement of time is predictable. While people can be doubted, time cannot be doubted. While people brood, time skips ahead without looking back.

3 May 1905 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.

4 May 1905 Time does pass, but little happens. Just as little happens from year to year, little happens from month to month, day to day. If time and the passage of events are the same, then time moves barely at all. If time and events are not the same, then it is only people who barely move. If a person holds no ambitions in this world, he suffers unknowingly. If a person holds ambitions, he suffers knowingly, but very slowly.

8 May 1905 The world will end on 26 September 1907. Everyone knows it. Time is captured in its last year, last month, last day, last minute, last seconds. Everyone shares the same fate. A world with one month is a world of equality.

10 May 1905 The texture of time is sticky. Portions of towns become stuck in some moment in history and do not get out. So, too, individual people become stuck in some point of their lives and do not get free. No one is happy, whether stuck in a time of pain or 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.

11 May 1905 The passage of time 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.

14 May 1905 Time stands still. As a traveller approaches this place from any direction, he moves more and more slowly. His heartbeats grow farther apart, his breathing slackens, his temperature drops, his thoughts diminishes, until he reaches dead center and stops. For this is the center of time. From this place, time travels outward in concentric circles – at rest at the center, slowly picking up speed at greater diameters.

15 May 1905 There is no time, only images.

20 May 1905 In this world, there is no memory. A world without memory is a world of the present. The past exists only books, in documents. In order to know himself, each person carries his own Book of Life, which is filled with the history of his life. By reading its pages daily, he can relearn the identity of his parents, whether he was born high or born low, whether he did well or did poorly in school, whether he has accomplished anything in his life. Without his Book of Life, a person is a snapshot, a two-dimensional image, a ghost.

22 May 1905 This is a world of changed plans, of sudden opportunities, of unexpected visions. For in this world, time flows not evenly but fitfully, and, as a consequence, people receive fitful glimpses of the future.

29 May 1905 Time passes more slowly for people in motion. Thus everyone travels at high velocity, to gain time.

2 June 1905 Time flows backward.

3 June 1905 In this world, people live just one day. A man or woman sees one sunrise, one sunset. No one lives to witness the change of the seasons.

5 June 1905 Time is a sense, like sight or like taste, a sequence of episodes may be quick or may be slow, dim or intense, salty or sweet, causal or without cause, orderly or random, depending on the prior history of the viewer.

9 June 1905 People live forever. The population of each city splits in two: the Laters and the Nows. For the Laters, in endless time, all things can be accomplished. Thus all things can wait. Indeed, hasty actions breed mistakes. The Nows note that with infinite lives, they can do all they can imagine. They will have an infinite number of careers, they will marry an infinite number of times, they will change their politics infinitely. The Nows are constantly reading new books, studying new trades, new languages. In order to taste the infinities of life, they begin early and never go slowly.

10 June 1905 Time is not a quantity but a quality. It exists but cannot be measured. There are no clocks, no calendars, no definite appointments. Events are triggered by other events, not by time.

11 June 1905 This is a world without a future. 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.

15 June 1905 Time is a visible dimension. Just as one may look off in the distance and see houses, trees, mountain peaks that are landmarks in space, so one may look out in another direction and see births, marriages, deaths that are signposts in time, stretching off dimly into the far future. Just as one may choose whether to stay in one place or run to another, so one may choose his motion along the axis of time.

17 June 1905 Time is discontinuous. Time is a stretch of nerve fibers: seemingly continuous from a distance but disjointed close up, with microscopic gaps between fibers. Nervous action flows through one segment of time, abruptly stops, pauses, leaps through a vacuum, and resumes in the neighboring segment.

18 June 1905 There is a Great Clock in the Temple of Time. Each man and woman must journey to the Temple of Time to pay homage to the Great Clock.

20 June 1905 Time is a local phenomenon. Two clocks close together tick at nearly the same rate. But clocks separated by distance tick at different rates, the farther apart the more out of step.

22 June 1905 Time is a rigid, bonelike structure, extending infinitely ahead and behind, fossilizing the future as well as the past. Every action, every thought, every breath of wind, every flight of birds is completely determined forever.

25 June 1905 Time is like the light between two mirrors. Time bounces back and forth, producing an infinite number of images, of melodies, of thoughts. It is a world of countless copies.

27 June 1905 This is a world of shifting pasts. The past could be firm or forgotten.

28 June 1905 Time is a nightingale. When a nightingale is caught, the catchers delight in the moment now frozen. They savor the precise placement of family and friends, the facial expressions, the trapped happiness over a prize or a birth or romance, the captured smell of cinnamon or white double violets. The catchers delight in the moment so frozen but soon discover that the nightingale expires, its clear, flutelike song diminishes to silence, the trapped moment grows withered and without life.

The book ends at six minutes past eight in the morning of 29th June 1905, when Einstein gives his manuscript on the theory of time to the typist.

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