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Einstein's Dreams, Alan Lightman, Pantheon.


Few scientists have written successful novels. Whatever allows a scientist to make a black hole or continental drift or the speed of light understandable to the rest of us hinders him from creating worthwhile fiction. Or so I thought until I read Einstein's Dreams by MIT physicist Alan Lightman. Lightman--the author of such earlier books as A Modern Day Yankee in a Connecticut Court and Great Ideas in Physics--has not only written a successful novel but one that most established novelists would be proud to claim as their own.

Einstein's Dreams tells the story of Albert Einstein just before he formulated his theory of relativity. The great scientist--obsessed with his work--is plagued by a series of dreams about the nature of time. Each of these dreams concerns a world where time operates in a different way. In brief chapters reminiscent of the parables of Kafka, Lightman presents some thirty of Einstein's dreams--dreams in which time is a circle, time is erratic, time is something to be worshiped, time is a material phenomenon, and even a world where time will end on September the 26th. Each dream is written in unadorned, elegant prose in the manner of the best folk and fairy tales. And each one raises surprising questions about the relationship of time to human life. Lightman never loses sight of this human dimension. His time speculations are rendered in terms of the social ceremonies of a human life, the daily struggles to raise a family or keep a friend or grow old with loved ones. He has an uncanny knack for presenting abstract scientific theory in a human context.

"Imagine a world in which people live just one day," begins one of Einstein's dreams. Such a world consists of two kinds of people, those born in darkness and those born in light. Those born in darkness spend the first half of their lives learning indoor skills like weaving, watchmaking, and reading. They eat too much and are fearful of the gloomy, outside world. Those born in light learn outdoor skills like farming and masonry, are physically fit, confident and outgoing. When the light changes, the children born in darkness are overwhelmed, blinded by the enormous light, creep into their homes and draw the curtains, stay indoors. The children born in light are frightened by sunset because the world they know disappears, they refuse to go indoors, refuse to work, reject the loss of their sunny world. A world in which people live just one day is a world filled with fear and misery.

In another dream people have no memory of the past; they know only the present. They are forever re-discovering themselves, their friends and relations, the world around them. The people in this world carry with them a Book of Life in which they note the important details of their personal history. Many spend their time reading their Books of Life to discover what they have achieved, who they have loved, where they have been. As they grow older, the Books of Life grow so large they are impossible to read entirely. A choice must be made. The elderly either read of their childhoods or of the immediate past. They cannot know both. But some few people refuse to read the Book of Life at all. They prefer to live in the present, facing it without the confidence or fear that knowledge of the past may provide them. "Such people," Lightman explains, "have learned how to live in a world without memory."

In counterpoint to the dreams, periodic "Interlude" chapters detail Einstein's waking life as a patent clerk in Switzerland. The same prose which is ideal when used for the dream chapters seems pale and lightweight when used for these "Interludes" set in the waking world. Taken on their own, the story they tell is negligible to the novel as a whole and reveals only the bare surface details of Einstein's biography. But as a means of framing a group of thought-provoking and beautifully-written parables, the "Interludes" can be forgiven.

Ultimately, Lightman pulls off a difficult trick. He joins the clean logic of scientific speculation with the rich subtexts of folklore to create a satisfying and enjoyable novel.

--Thomas Wiloch