Have you ever had a moment that felt like an hour? An hour that felt like a moment? Welcome to Einstein’s theory of relativity. If you’re not up to reading his original paper, pick up Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman for a mind-bending, perspective-shifting look at the possibilities of time.
In his early days as a young patent clerk, Albert Einstein was notorious for falling asleep at his desk. As the story goes, his theory of relativity came to him in dream. Imagine the dreams he must have had! In this fictional novel, Lightman, a physicist himself, explores a few of the possibilities.
Told as a series of vignettes, each story outlines a world in which time is different. Sometimes disjointed, sometimes portrayed as a sense, sometimes nothing but a collection of images– random, unconnected.
Einstein’s Dreams forces us to reevaluate our perception of time. What is time, anyway? A tick on the clock? A heartbeat? A particular favorite “world” of mine is one in which there are two times: mechanical time and body time.
“Many are convinced that mechanical time does not exist […] Instead, they listen to their heartbeats. They feel the rhythms of their moods and desires. Such people eat when they are hungry, go to their jobs at the millinery or the chemist’s whenever they wake from their sleep, make love all hours of the day. […] Then there are those who think their bodies don’t exist. They live by mechanical time. They rise at seven o’clock in the morning. They eat their lunch at noon and their supper at six. […] When their stomach growls, they look at their watch to see if it is time to eat. When they begin to lose themselves in a concert, they look at the clock above the stage to see when it will be time to go home.”
It’s difficult not to quote this entire book. The writing is descriptive and somewhat removed, but intensely moving. Thought-provoking would be putting it lightly.
One last note– rather than sticking to the traditional “he” as the subject for anonymous thoughts, Lightman equally uses “she.” A small detail, but an inviting one that left me pleasantly surprised. To call a book welcoming seems odd. Perhaps ‘included’ is better. I wasn’t a stranger intruding in this world, but a part of it myself; a feeling I had never before considered.
Lightman tricks the reader into becoming part of the dream. “In this world, time is…”
What is time in your world?