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Fittingly enough, Alan Lightman--a professor of physics and writing at MIT--demonstrates the validity of two scientific theories, perhaps unintentionally, in this fine short novel. The first is Stephen Wolfram's recent hypothesis that immense complexity can be derived from running even simple programs. What Mr. Lightman has done is started his novel from a simple idea: it is an early morning in 1905 in Berne, Switzerland and Albert Einstein awaits the typist who will prepare the paper [On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies (A. Einstein, June 30, 1905)] he has just finished working on:
In the long, narrow office on Speichergasse, the room full of practical ideas, the young patent clerk still sprawls in his chair, head down on his desk. For the past several months, since the middle of April, he has dreamed many dreams about time. His dreams have taken hold of his research. His dreams have worn him out, exhausted him so that he sometimes cannot tell whether he is awake or asleep. But the dreaming is finished. Out of many possible natures of time, imagined in as many nights, one seems compelling. Not that others are impossible. The others might exist in other worlds.
As Einstein dozes, Mr. Lightman recounts that series of dreams and the alternate natures that time might have taken.

These dreams have a lyrical, often haunting, often heart-breaking quality to them. Time might be circular, with each moment lived over and over again. It might be peculiar to location, so that the time is never the same in any two places. Time might run backwards, so that we begin by dying and end by being born:
26 April 1905

In this world, it is instantly obvious that something is odd. No houses can be seen in the valleys or plains. Everyone lives in the mountains.

At some time in the past, scientists discovered that time flows more slowly the further from the center of the earth. The effect is minuscule, but it can be measured with extremely sensitive instruments. Once the phenomenon was known, a few people, anxious to stay young, moved to the mountains. Now all houses are built on Dom, the Matterhorn, Monte Rosa, and other high ground. It is impossible to sell living quarters elsewhere.

Many are not content simply to locate their homes on a mountain. To get the maximum effect, they have constructed their houses on stilts. The mountaintops all over the world are nexted with such houses, which from a distance look like a flock of fat birds squatting on long skinny legs. People most eager to live longest have built their houses on the highest stilts. Indeed, some houses rise half a mile high on their spindly wooden legs. Height has become status.
29 May 1905

A man or a woman suddenly thrust into this world would have to dodge houses and buildings. For all is in motion. Houses and apartments, mounted on wheels, go careening through Bahnhofplatz and race through the narrows of Marktgasse, their occupants shouting from second-floor windows. The Post Bureau doesn't remain on Postgasse, but flies through the city on rails, like a train. Nor does the Bundeshaus sit quietly on Bundesgasse. Everywhere the air whines and roars with the sound of motors and locomotion. When a person comes out of his front door at sunrise, he hits the ground running, catches up with his office building, hurries up and down flights of stairs, works at a desk propelled in circles, gallops home at the end of the day. No one sits under a tree with a book, no one gazes at the ripples on a pond, no one lies in thick grass in the country. No one is still.

Why such a fixation on speed? Because in this world time passes more slowly for people in motion. Thus everyone travels at high velocity, to gain time.

The speed effect was not noticed until the invention of the internal combustion engine and the beinnings of rapid transportation. On 8 September 1889, Mr. Randolph Whig of Surrey took his mother-in-law to London at high speed in his new motor car. To his delight, he arrived in half the expected time, a conversation having scarcely begun, and decided to look into the phenomenon. After his researches were published, no one went slowly again.

Since time is money, financial considerations alone dictate that each brokerage house, each manufacturing plant, each grocer's shop constantly travel as rapidly as possible, to achieve advantage over their competitors. Such buildings are fitted with giant engines of propulsion and are never at rest. Their motors and crankshafts roar far more loudly than the equipment and people inside them.

Likewise, houses are sold not just on their size and design, but also on speed., For the faster a house travels, the more slowly the clocks tick inside and the more time available to its occupants. Depending on the speed, a person in a fast house could gain several minutes on his neighbors in a single day. This obsession with speed carries through the night, when valuable time could be lost, or gained, while asleep. At night, the streets are ablaze with lights, so that passing houses might avoid collisions, which are always fatal. At night, people dream of speed, of youth, of opportunity.

In this world of great speed, one fact has been only slowly appreciated. By logical tautology, the motional effect is all relative. Because when two people pass on the street, each perceives the other in motion, just as a man in a train perceives the trees to fly by his window. Consequently, when two people pass on the street, each sees the other's time flow more slowly. Each sees the other gaining time. This reciprocity is maddening. More maddening still, the faster one travels past a neighbor, the faster the neighbor appears to be traveling.

Frustrated and despondent, some people have stopped looking out their windows.

10 May 1905

The tragedy of this world is that no one is happy, whether stuck in a time of pain or of 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.

22 June 1905

This is a world in which time is not fluid, parting to make way for events. Instead, 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. [...]

In a world of fixed future, life is an infinite corridor of rooms, one room lit at each moment, the next room dark but prepared. We walk from room to room, look into the room that is lit, the present moment, then walk on. We do not know the rooms ahead, but we know we cannot change them. We are spectators of our lives.

This really only offers a taste of the melancholy but beautiful vignettes of life in general and of individuals' lives that Mr. Lightman concocts for the reader. He seems as wise in the ways of humanity as in the laws of physics.

The second theory can be seen at work in the theme that unifies these varied worlds, because people are almost uniformly unhappy. Mr. Lightman seems to have adopted the anthropic principle--which states that: We may occupy a preferred place or preferred time in the Universe (we may also occupy a preferred universe)--at least for purposes of this book. It's hard to come to any other conclusion but that he thinks we live in a universe where the laws that govern time are structured in such a manner that they maximize human happiness and/or achievement. This makes the book ultimately uplifting, though many of the stories within are ineffably sad.


Grade: (A)


See also:

Alan Lightman Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Alan Lightman
    -ALAN LIGHTMAN: John E. Burchard Professor, Creative Writing, Physics (MIT)
    -MIT Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies: Alan Lightman
    -ART: Caricature of Alan Lightman (David Levine Gallery, NY Review of Books)
    -EXCERPT: Why the paradoxes of infinity still puzzle us today: Since at least 600 BC, people have been mesmerized by the concept of the infinite (Excerpted from Probable Impossibilities: Musings on Beginnings and Endings, written by Alan Lightman)
    -EXCERPT: Sticky Time from Einstein's Dreams
    -EXCERPT: World Without Freedom from Einstein's Dreams
    -EXCERPT: Smile from Dance for Two
    -ESSAY: Art That Transfigures Science: What exactly does science have to offer the arts? What are the particular ways in which science provokes us, inspires us and examines who we are? (ALAN LIGHTMAN, 3/15/03, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: Relativity and the Cosmos (Alan Lightman, Nova: Einstein Revealed)
    -ESSAY: The Role of the Public Intellectual (Alan Lightman, MIT Communications Forum)
    -ESSAY: How I Write (Alan Lightman, May 2001, The Writer)
    -STORY: Maine Light (Alan Lightman, April/ May 1996, Boston Review)
    -REVIEW: of THE DECHRONIZATION OF SAM MAGRUDER By George Gaylord Simpson (Alan Lightman, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Megaton Man: "Memoirs: A Twentieth-Century Journey in Science and Politics by Edward Teller, with Judith L. Shoolery" (Alan Lightman, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of GALILEO'S DAUGHTER: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love By Dava Sobel (Alan Lightman, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Art and Science: Investigating Matter by Catherine Wagner (Alan Lightman, Double Take)
    -REVIEW: of Einstein's Miraculous Year edited by John Stachel (Alan Lightman, Atlantic Monthly)
    -LECTURE: The World is Too Much With Me: Finding Private Space in a Wired World (Alan Lightman, 2002 Hart House Lecture)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: with Alan Lightman (The Fine Print, November 11, 2000, NPR)
    -INTERVIEW: Alan Lightman (Bookreporter, November 17, 2000)
    -INTERVIEW: Creative tensions (Soundings, Spring 1999)
    -INTERVIEW: Lightman Discusses the Writing of Physics (MIT Tech Talk, November 6, 1991)
    -INTERVIEW: Interview: Alan Lightman (Identity Theory)
    -PODCAST: Alan Lightman on the Artfulness of the Cosmos: In Conversation with Andrew Keen on the Keen On Podcast (Keen On, February 18, 2021, LitHub)
    -PODCAST: MIT physicist and novelist Alan Lightman looks for meaning in the age of science (Josephine Reed, 2/09/23, By Any Measure)
-INTERVIEW: Does a Final Theory Exist?: A Conversation with Alan Lightman (Julien Crockett, 2/23/23, LA Review of Books)
    -PROFILE: Alan Lightman’s (and Everybody Else’s) Search (Jeannette Cooperman, FEBRUARY 5, 2023, The Common Reader)
    -PROFILE: Valuing Ourselves: Examining How Technology Affects Us (Orna Feldman, Fall 2001, Spectrum)
    -PROFILE: Alan Lightman (Odyssey '97, University of Wisconsin Oshkosh Orientation
    -Einstein's Web / Einstein's Dreams: Alan Lightman
    -READERS' GUIDE TO EINSTEIN'S DREAMS (Einstein's Web) devoted to the current book in Virginia Tech University's Common Book project
    -Project on Alan Lightman's Einstein's Dreams (Sara Perry,
    -Online Literary Criticism Collection: Sites about Einstein's Dreams by Alan P. Lightman (IPL Online Literary Criticism Collection) The Diagnosis by Alan Lightman
    -ARCHIVES: The New York Review of Books: Alan Lightman
    -ARCHIVES: "Alan Lightman" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW: of Einstein's Dreams (Kathleen Sullivan)
    -REVIEW: of Einstein's Dreams (Dr. George Johnson, txtwriter)
    -REVIEW: of Einstein's Dreams (Teresa Santoski, Stranger Things)
    -REVIEW: of Einstein's Dreams (Idris Hsi, GA Tech)
    -REVIEW: of Einstein's Dreams (Larry Zeller, NYU)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: February 22, 2001: Charles Simic, Intensive Care (NY Review of Books)
    The Diagnosis by Alan Lightman
    Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman
    Good Benito by Alan Lightman
    Dance for Two by Alan Lightman
-REVIEW: of Good Benito by Alan Lightman (Carl Djerassi, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of Good Benito (JASON ANDERSON, Eye Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of DANCE FOR TWO Selected Essays By Alan Lightman (CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Dance for Two ( Ron Fletcher, Book Page)
    -REVIEW: of The Diagnosis by Alan Lightman (Abraham Verghese , NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Diagnosis (Floyd Skloot, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of The Diagnosis (Charlie Onion, The Wag)
    -REVIEW: of The Diagnosis (Marge Fletcher, Bookreporter)
    -REVIEW: of The Diagnosis (Amy Paris, Sacramento News & Review)

    -REVIEW: One for Al: "Einstein's Dreams" is an evocative and expertly staged - if not naturally dramatic - exploration of the imagination of the young Albert Einstein. (JOSHUA TANZER,
    -REVIEW: of Einstein's Dreams (David Finkle, Theater Mania)

Book-related and General Links:

    -Nova: Einstein Revealed (PBS)
    -Einstein's Web
    -Einstein in Princeton: Scientist, Humanitarian, Cultural Icon (The Historical Society of Princeton)
    -Albert Einstein (School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of St Andrews, Scotland)
    -Einstein - Image and Impact (American Institute of Physics)
    -ARTICLE: E and mc2: Equality, It Seems, Is Relative (DENNIS OVERBYE, December 31, 2002, NY Times)

ANTHROPIC PRINCIPLE: Here you will find both popular overviews and scholarly material on everything related to observation selection effects, the anthropic principle, self-locating belief, and associated applications and paradoxes in science and philosophy. (Nick Bostrom, Dept. of Philosophy, Yale University)
    -Anthropic Principle
    -The Anthropic Cosmological Principle and Related Issues (Glenn T. McDavid)
    -ESSAY: Barrow and Tipler on the Anthropic Principle vs. Divine Design (William Lane Craig, Leadership U)
    -RESPONSE: Is the Weak Anthropic Principle Compatible With Divine Design?: A Response to Craig (Kyle Kelly, Internet Infidels)
    -POEM:Anthropic Principle (Emily Gaskin, 11/18/02, Strange Horizons)
    -ARCHIVES: "anthropic principle" (Find Articles)