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Friday Favorite – Einstein’s Dreams

Partial cover image of Einstein's Dreams by Alan LightmanIt has been quite a while since I’ve posted a Friday favorite, and I hadn’t really intended to do one today either. But I opened one of my journals from 2006 to see if any of the passages sparked an idea, and came across one about time that had been written in April.

When I wrote these particular words, Atlas, our beloved German Shepherd, was about two-and-a-half months into a battle with lymphoma that he would fight valiantly until September. It was about three weeks since I’d had surgery for a cyst that we were relieved to learn was benign. Twenty-four more days would pass before my mother would tell me –– before she took her final breaths 21 days after she’d been diagnosed with cancer –– to look for one red and one white rose.

They would have you believe that
Every minute is the same length as every other minute
Every hour is the same length as every other hour
And every day, every month, every year…
They’re all the same length as every other day, and month, and year.

But that’s not so.
Not so at all.

Which brings me to my Friday favorite ––  a book called Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman. To quote his official website, “Lightman is a novelist, essayist, physicist and educator. Currently, he is Professor of the Practice of the Humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).”

I happened upon the 1993 book in a U.S. bookstore during a business trip, though I honestly can’t remember the city. Its undersized hardcover format and cover quite literally compelled me to lift it from the shelf and open it to read the inside flap:

There is a place where time stands still. Raindrops hand motionless in the air. Pendulums of clocks float mid-swing… As a traveler approaches this place from any direction, he moves more and more slowly…

Autographed title page of Einstein's Dreams
My autographed copy of “Einstein’s Dreams”… signed at a communications conference in Chicago. Having missed the fact that Alan Lightman was one of the keynotes, I didn’t have my copy with me; thankfully, they were available at a nearby bookstore.

The copy then goes on to talk about a young patent clerk in Switzerland, who dreams each night about the nature of time. Thirty nights. Thirty dreams. All of them “visions that gently probe the essence of time, the adventure of creativity, the glory of possibility, and the beauty of Einstein’s Dreams.” All of them a representation of a different theory of time.

Einstein’s Dreams is one of those books you absorb as much as read. Thought provoking and poetic, it is captivating:

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 intertwined…

Most people have learned how to live in the moment. The argument goes that if the past has uncertain effect on the present, there is no need to dwell on the past. And if the present has little effect on the future, present actions need no be weighed for their consequence. Rather, each act is an island in time, to be judged on its own…

It is a world of impulse. It is a world of sincerity. It is a world in which every word spoken speaks just to that moment…

Alan Lightman has a number of other novels, and I have read them all. But Einstein’s Dreams is the one I love most, I think because it is poetry and science and imagination in one small, beautifully designed volume… because I have always been fascinated by the concept of time… and because I learned very early in my life that time is exactly what you make it.