Jul 6, 2010

[Books] Einstein's Dreams

Up until high school, my book choices were pretty much either science fiction or science fantasy books. I hard rarely delved into more contemporary fiction titles since I was perfectly content trying to gather up all the Star Wars and Star Trek books, as nearly impossibly as this task sounds like. That was my life then and there was nothing wrong with that, I know.

But then college came along and soon I found myself wondering why I had never tried authors like this before. The stories were different and sometimes geeky too, but in very different ways. I wasn't getting bored with the lack of blasters, phasers and magic wands and instead I was really loving all these other books. Of course this one in particular holds a very special place in my heart - it's probably an Einstein thing, of course.

College was a great time for me, mainly because of my humanities classes. Sure, I still enjoy solving math problems until today and I'm obviously quite the computer geek but there was just something else about diving into new literary avenues with the rest of my class. Maybe I just got really lucky when I found a great Humanities professor who had such an interesting and eclectic taste in books that it changed a lot of my reading choices forever.

Einstein's Dreams is the first work of fiction by physicist Alan Lightman (don't you just love the irony of his name?) and it wasn't just a decent effort. Quite frankly, this book is just amazing and is written in almost lyrical, prose-like style that is a joy to read.

Photograph of Albert Einstein in his office at...Image via Wikipedia
The book is a fictional account of what might have been going through the mind of a young Albert Einstein while he was working out the now famous Theory of Relativity. Instead of just straightforward thoughts about numbers and equations, this Einstein has dreams of the various theories related to time. Each night is a different dream and a different notion of time presented in a highly fantastic and almost magical way that makes it hard to believe there's actual science behind it. But in truth, there is a lot of scientific weight behind a number of these dreams and many of them are in fact illustrations of Relativity applied in a more extreme manner.

For example, one dream involves how time-travelers end up being outcasts from time. They end up becoming immobilized by the fear of doing something that will alter their timeline and destroy their future. Or there was the dream about the center of time where things crawl to a standstill and lovers can escape to in order to make a moment stretch for an eternity. There are the people whose houses are all on wheels in order to achieve greater and greater acceleration and thus make time somehow move slower. Or there's the dream about the people who believe that living higher off the ground gives them more time on this world. These folks spend their lives in their houses on stilts, barely leaving their sanctuaries to bolt across the ground for supplies or whatever.

Every dream is unique and it seems like a completely different and impossible reality. However once you get past the exagerrated metaphors, you'll realize that you are in fact looking at an aspect of time as we know it today. At the very least, you'll find yourself walking through a world based on a prior speculation about time that has long since been disproven. And this is the challenge of Einstein - to weed out the useless dreams from the relevant ones that will eventually lead to his theory of time.

Given this was the first attempt at a novel-length piece of fiction for a physicist, a profession not stereotypically known for writing, this book is amazing. I know I already said this but I really felt like his style was very prose-like in nature. But the true beauty is the fact that he gets to convey his message in simpler terms and did not have to rely on polysyllabic words to sound more impressive or something like that.

And yes, I realize the irony in using the term polysyllabic just there.

One could argue that it's not really a single story but is probably more like a collection of short stories about time, and I can accept this. The books' main unifying elements are these occasional cutaways to Einstein's life at the times and how he struggles with both the theory and his dreams related to it. Of course the book ends with him finalizing the Theory of Relativity, but that doesn't necessarily have to rely on the various alternate worlds the dreams bring us to. Still, I wouldn't mind sharing a single dream or two with friends or loved ones, if only to convey a particular point or just celebrate how great many of these dreams truly are.

You don't even need to be a scientist to appreciate this book. Sure, it's fun to be able to identify which aspect of special relativity is being portrayed in a particular dream or which ones are just fantasy. That's the geeky side to it that you'll never be able to get rid of. However without the science stuff, it's still a tremendous beautiful novel with wonderfully unique and creative worlds that just happen to all be about time and motion.

Einstein's Dreams is one of my favorite novels to date and a constant reminder that a geek and can write good contemporary fiction. It deserves a full 5 alternative versions of Germany out of a possible 5.

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