Einstein's Dreams

by Alan Lightman

Paperback, 1994





Warner Books (1994), Edition: 1st, 179 pages


In this provocative national bestseller, first-time novelist Lightman takes us back to 1905 and into the dreams of a young patent clerk named Albert Einstein, just as he was completing his theory of relativity. "Lightman lets the reader in on the workings of a creative scientific mind"

Media reviews

Virginia Quarterly Review
A beautifully written and thought-provoking book.
8 more
Technology Review
The dreams do more than just catalog our neuroses. They also underscore some fundamental conflicts in the human relationship to time.
THIS book contains 30 brief fictional dreams. All are about time, and all are dreamt by Albert Einstein in Berne, in the spring and early summer of 1905, as he works on his paper 'On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies' and proceeds inefficiently towards the special theory of relativity. Some contain distorted traces of his discoveries. In one dream, people live up mountains and build their houses on stilts, having discovered that time flows relatively more slowly as one moves further from the centre of the earth. In another, banks, factories and houses are all motorised and constantly on the move, for time is money and slows down as you accelerate, so the faster you go the more you have.
New Statesman & Society
Like the best fables, Lightman's seriousness is seductively cumulative.
The writing, beautifully simple, conveys better than most texts the strangeness of Einstein's ideas.
This book is a joy . . . It bridges disciplines by linking intellectual understanding with the kind of relaxing enjoyment to be expected from a good novel.
New York Times
By turns whimsical and meditative, playful and provocative, "Einstein's Dreams" pulls the reader into a dream world like a powerful magnet.
Library Journal
Lightman offers provocative and elegantly wrought speculations on the nature of time.
Publishers Weekly
Lightman's speculative prose poem warrants comparison to Calvino's masterful Invisible Cities.

User reviews

LibraryThing member twomoredays
Einstein's Dreams is a beautiful novella that is best savored like a piece of decadent, rich chocolate: slowly and deliberately.

The book is a collection of short vignette's, dreams Einstein might have had as he was composing his theory of time. Having only a very rudimentary understanding of theoretical physics, I still was delighted to see echoes of Einstein's ideas in the different dream worlds that are described.

The book is an interesting meditation on the role of creativity and fantasy in any creation. It delighted me to think of Einstein, being a scientist and thus associated with regimented, rational thought, dreaming up these fantastically different worlds.

Lightman, also a physicist by training, has a beautiful way with language, and reminded me in some ways of Milan Kundera.

My only complaint with the book is its brevity. I would have been happy to have the experience extend another hundred pages, but perhaps it is like any other rich treat and best served in proportion.
… (more)
LibraryThing member bokai
After reading and enjoying Calvino's Invisible Cities, Einstein's Dreams was very disappointing. The format of the two books are almost identical. There is an overarching theme explored in a series of mini chapters, all tied together by interludes where a sort of plot progresses.

With Einstein's Dreams the theme is time, and the mini-chapters imagine worlds in which time behaves differently from what we are used to. In one chapter people randomly end up in the past; in another time is frozen in particular parts of the world; in a third different cities have their own rates of time. From these myriad premises Lightman imagines how the world would work and how people would behave when dealing with these different types of time.

His impressions were very hit or miss for me. A few I found to be insightful and poetic, but for a good majority of the time I was hung up on logical holes or what I felt was a tedious prose style. Lightman has apparently abolished the conjunction, and he has a great love of lists, so much so that one chapter is nothing but a giant list meant to illustrate time as disconnected and nothing but a series of snapshot like moments. Unlike Calvino's Cities, which became more interesting the more I thought of them, I found that the more time I spent thinking of Lightman's different worlds of time the less they made sense.

Ultimately I think that there are great ideas in Einstein's Dreams, but neither they, nor Lightman's style, were enough to fill 140 pages of this book.
… (more)
LibraryThing member tivonut
Had to restart this after reading a couple of the dreams and then putting it down for months.

Hmm... well I understand why some people really like this and some of the dreams are very though provoking for me as well. The problem is some of the dreams are almost redundant and repetitive, whether compared to another dream already described or within the dream itself, and others don't quite work.

Two dreams that I can remember that I had problems with were, the Benjamin Button type of time flow, where the people are getting younger and heading towards their youth. This is a bit different because your memories are of the past, and you are looking forward to those times. One of the times he proposes is when a wife meets her husband for the first time and that first kiss. I would argue that you dread getting to that first kiss because it marks the ending. Yet he describes it like time is moving forward in the meeting. You can have it one way or the other, not both.

OK, another dream I had problems with was a life is lived in a day, whether it is because we move faster or the earth moves slower, everyday marks about a human lifetime. I thought this to be a very interesting premise but, he talks about people that are born at sunset living their prime in the dark and those born at sunrise living their prime in the sun. He argues that the sunset people would be more centered in the indoors and indoor activities with erudite profession, whereas the sunrise people would be more outdoors with outdoors professions like farming. When those sunset people in the middle of their lives had their world turn into brightness, they would be blinded and pull the shades living as hermits. The sunrise people, when the day turned to night, would be depressed by the darkness and not being able to continue with their activities. Both not being happy at the end of their lives. I don't agree with this. One, night does not turn to day with a flick of a switch or vise versa. Two, people would be born somewhere in the middle of the night or day and all would learn that the "seasons" of life was about, what?, 40 years, where light turns to dark. They would be planning on the change. 40 years is not that long to forget.

So there were a number of dreams I had problems with but at least I found them interesting, then there were the dreams that were just kinda boring and repetitive, and then the ones that made you think. Those that caught your attention and made you think were the heart of this book and made it good. But for me, because you had to wade through the "just good but flawed" and then the boring ones, I don't think this is as great as some other reviewers do.

It is a short book so if you want to envision different thoughts on how time flows (and doesn't flow) and you are willing to be bored by some, amazed by some, and just be thoughtful on others (and how they many not work), then read it. I enjoyed it.
… (more)
LibraryThing member ireed110
A series of vignettes, each in a different sense of time. Nothing tied the stories together, so I never really cared about the characters. There are 3 or 4 interludes in which the REAL Einstein mopes about, presumably to remind us that these vignettes are his dreams?

The premise is good - this book could have been AMAZING -- judging by the ratings, a lot of people already feel that it is. I just don't get that.… (more)
LibraryThing member dchaikin
66. Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman (1993, 144 page e-book, Read November 9-16)

Couldn't take it in. I just wasn't in the right state of mind. I liked what I "saw", but in the same way one wanders through a museum casually, noting each exhibit but not engaging. So, I could kind of appreciate that there was something nice here.

Einstein's Dreams gets rave reviews for its inspiration for creativity. Lightman uses Einstein as sort of source because of Einstein's ideas of space-time and relativity. Each chapter is about four pages on a different world with different physics, and the imagined experience on those worlds. Most of the physical changes have to do with time. In some worlds time moves backwards, in others people can sense time, in one world they can even see it. In some worlds time is relative to the observer so that each person experiences time differently.

Our sense of time is outside our regular senses. As our awareness of it comes and goes, so our sense of time becomes more and less attuned to real time. One cumulative affect is that we do actually each have a varying sense of time perception. Further, we don't really know what time is. It has a physical reality that alludes our senses. It's out there, fundamentally affects us, and yet we have trouble understanding its fundamentals. But yet we count on time's regularity. It has a permanence that we rely on for our sense of reality. Lightman puts it less concretely, "A world in which time is absolute is a world of consolation. For while the movements of people are unpredictable, the movement of time is predictable. While people can be doubted, time cannot be doubted."

Each of Lightman's worlds has an aspect that we can relate to in some way, that is they all touch on something in our reality. But each offers a change of perspective. It also offers an opportunity for the reader to continue well beyond the four pages of the chapter, and create their own worlds that Lightman's ideas might lead us to. That, I think, is the true value of the book. But...I didn't do that. Instead I got caught up in a soft but persistent skepticism, looking for inconsistencies or shrugging at some of the silly details. I maintained a safe, observational distance, if you like. So, I missed out. I'll have to consider trying again.

"Suppose that time is not a quantity but a quality, like the luminescence of the night about the trees just when a rising moon has touched the treeline. Time exists, but it cannot be measured."
… (more)
LibraryThing member annbury
For me this book is structured more like music than like prose -- a set of variations on the theme of time, not a novelistic examination of the topic. Lightman's "hero" is the young Einstein, living in Bern in 1905, working in a patent office but spending all his energies on his theory of relativity. But it isn't Einstein's daytime life that is the subject of this book, though that is touched on in a prologue, three interludes, and an epilogue. Rather, what matters here are thirty chapters showing us thirty different dreams that Einstein has about time. These explore different ways in which time might work, and the ways in which people would react under those assumptions, and they are altogether delightful. Some read like visions, some like the premises of sci-fi stories, some like -- dreams. The writing is beautiful, highly concrete about physical detail and more than occasionally witty, both of which help anchor these visions. I don't have the scientific knowledge to appreciate some of what is going on -- some of the different varieties of time, I am told, reflect thinking about relativity and other great matters. But I didn't need it to enjoy this book a great deal. Those who love Calvino's "Invisible Cities" may be particularly entranced.… (more)
LibraryThing member maidenveil
Clearly, I have to be bored to finish reading this book. I was in a philosophical-mood when I saw the book and got curious. It was a nice read but yes, boredom is one of the factors to help finish this.
LibraryThing member RyanGlenn
I believe this piece of work to be nothing more than mediocre. With all of the short vignettes, one easily gets the point that Einstein had these unbelievable thoughts and ideas. But it didn’t go much farther beyond that. It just stuck with the same type of pattern throughout the entire book.

His vignettes were clearly established through love and the average person’s life towards the beginning. Although after a while, Lightman’s realities seemed almost repetitive because all he talked about was how lovers embrace, how the children act and how adults go about their daily routine in a very general standpoint. And the lack of storyline with Einstein himself proved to induce a lack of understanding about Einstein himself as he was coming up with these new realities. And so it encompassed nothing more than the idea that Einstein only had this theory of light and relativity on his mind constantly.

Einstein certainly established certain routes that lead to some mankind changing epiphanies throughout his lifetime. This book does not really connect to those pathways chronologically and therefore has no climax or build up. Throughout the reading it seemed to plateau after the first couple of vignettes. If you want to read this book for more of an understanding of Einstein himself, this is certainly not the book to read.
… (more)
LibraryThing member dandv
The book is a collection of 3-4 page thoughts experiments involving time and human memory. Its back cover claims it's a "fictional collage of stories dreamed by Albert Einstein in 1905", but if Einstein could have peered into the future and had seen this book, he would have probably hanged little Lightman from the hour hand of a giant clock.

The thought experiments are set in picturesque Berne, Switzerland, in 1905. However, ideas are naively, narrowly and summarily explored, and inconsistencies abound. For example, in one story, time is stopped, and people only experience images: dinner on the table, the touch of a lover. But how would they evolve to experience any image at all, if time is stopped?

Another story, on the locality of time (p. 120), could explore the idea of connecting locations where time passes at wildly different rates via electrical or even radio signals (which had already gone commercial by 1905), but fails short.

The story on page 107, which asserts that time is discrete and stops every micro-second before resuming, but for a short enough interval that the pause is imperceptible. However, this misses a major point, discussed by Greg Egan's Permutation City: the rate at which consecutive quantum events occur in a closed universe is irrelevant for a consciousness existing in that universe. In other words if we simulate an AI in a computer, the speed of that computer doesn't matter for the AI (as long as it doesn't communicate with the outside world). Indeed, the AI could be simulated on an abacus and have the same perception of "time".

Given the (necessary) superficiality of the thought experiments, the book is much better as material for finding out why various fantastic theories about time would be self-contradictory.
… (more)
LibraryThing member ccavaleri
I really thought this was a silly book. Maybe I'm just to dumb.
LibraryThing member pw0327
This is a fine little book; a famous little book; and a clever little book.
I came upon this book late, even though I had heard of the book before, but I didn’t pay enough heed to the hype to start reading earlier.
This book is a neat exercise in thought experimentation by a physicist. He is having a little fun as well as showing off his physics chops.
Even though I knew what Lightman is trying to do, I was surprised slightly when he jumped straight into the tales of relativity. The stories were, at first, seemingly unrelated to one another, it isn’t until a little further up the road that the theme of the stories established themselves. Thus begins a short but charming ride through the theory of relativity as illustrated through vignettes starring the citizenry of the good people of Bern. The story moves along with dates serving as names of the chapters and Lightman weaving the sequence of tales as he uses the stories to explain the physics.
The book is structured so that there is no structure. It is reminiscent of Italo Calvino’s books. The stories come at you in short quick bursts with seemingly no connection between them, but in the end there is an overriding theme to it all.
The beauty of the book is that you can enjoy the gentle tales and be charmed by the oddities built within the stories or you can add another dimension to the tales by actually understanding the specifics of the theory of relativity and drawing the parallels between the stories and the relativity. I had an inkling about the physics, having been exposed to it during my undergrad days but I am obviously not an expert in the dark arts of theoretical physics, yet I thoroughly enjoyed the book beyond just the charming stories.
… (more)
LibraryThing member kvrfan
Do I have time to write this review? Do you have time to read it? How do you know? By what standard do you measure time? Mechanically? Organically? Metaphysically?

In this beautifully written book, Alan Lightman muses upon the nature of time. His approach is to imagine a series of dreams Albert Einstein had while developing his theory of relativity as an anonymous clerk laboring away in the patent office at Berne. The dreams are short-- three to four pages each--and play off the everyday images Einstein that would have been familiar to him from his life in Berne. Lightman is a genius with the images. His doctorate is in theoretical physics, but he writes like a poet. Each dream is one to savor.

And each emphasizes the relativity of time. What temporally conditioned conditioned creatures we all are! Ultimately, Einstein's Dreams makes me marvel at the place we inhabit within this marvelously complex Universe.
… (more)
LibraryThing member sirfurboy
After going to the trouble of importing a copy of this book from America (as it seems to be hard to obtain outside of the US), I was rather disappointed - and perhaps a little clearer as to why its not readily available in the UK!

This book contains a series of dreams of imaginary worlds with a very different conception of time. Each chapter then is a thought experiment - but what I would have liked to see is some theme or character or reason why I should be carried through the thought experiments. There was no binding theme, and thus the book could better have been reduced to a list: Imagine a world where time is like X, Imagine a world where time is like Y and so on.

Maybe a poem on time would have been better than a whole book here.

It was not totally uninteresting, but neither did I feel it greatly profound. reading about Einstein in depth makes you more aware of the profound nature of time. reading popular physics books like "The Elegant Universe" likewise.
… (more)
LibraryThing member Sean191
I see a lot of people really enjoyed this book of (very) short stories all dealing with time. I really didn't like it. It read like something you would expect to hear in a college dorm filled with funny-smelling smoke. Eventually, the themes essentially repeated - in some worlds time is slower depending on where you live/in some worlds time is slower depending how high above the planet you are (um...essentially the same?) Maybe if the stories were longer it would have been good. If Lightman could have taken the stories somewhere. But when it's literally three to five pages per story, these "deep thoughts" on time aren't very impressive to me. Frankly, a number of stories don't have to do with time, but that's what he shoe-horned them into. The only good part about this book taking a look at time was the fact that it didn't take a long time to read through it.… (more)
LibraryThing member the1butterfly
This book was fascinating and amazing. It imagines what the world would be like if time ran differently than it does, and each imagining is more unique and fascinating than the last. Each possible reality is thought out to its full potential in a short and dreamlike way.
LibraryThing member lgaikwad
Parables about the many experiences of time.
LibraryThing member Becky221
I liked the idea of the book and the brevity. I did not like the writing style of the author (too contrived and at times, simplistic). I would have appreciated less quantity and more quality; in other words I would have enjoyed three or four "dreams" that explored a world that Einstein's theories predicted rather than so many illogical ones.… (more)
LibraryThing member beau.p.laurence
fictional "memoirs" as Einstein works out his theory on how time works
LibraryThing member justine
A brilliant book. Masterfully illustrates principles of relativity through experimental narratives.
LibraryThing member Katya0133
One of those books whose ideas stay with you long after you finish it, bubbling up from your subconscious at random times. A fabulous read.
LibraryThing member rdaneel
It has been compared to Calvino's Invisible Cities (by Rushdie, no less). The format is similar. It contains a series of short descriptions of worlds in which time is somehow different from our experience of it. It is not a mere intellectual exercise or a game, though. I think the point is much subtler. The kinds of people he describes all exist in our world. It is as if their subjective experience of time is different. Put another way, he has created a very neat framework in which to analyze people and behavior.… (more)
LibraryThing member ValSmith
This book was originally published in 1993, and I read in 1997, and it's great! In 140 pages (I think the hardcover was 176 pages), he manages to look at time in some twenty different ways. This book will bend your brain every possible way you can think of. I read it in two hours and was entranced.
LibraryThing member ragwaine
Bad writing but the guy is a genius, experimental, no plot or characters.
LibraryThing member alex117
Einstein’s Dreams provides a new and innovative way of thinking how time and life intertwine into one entity resulting in the way we live. The book provides deep meaningful thought beyond the scope of the normal concept of time. One part the struck me the most was the idea of multiple dimensions and how a decision can have multiple outcomes.

The most difficult aspect that a traditional reader may find is the lack of a character or dialogue. Many readers will be turned away from this because they believe it’s just ramblings or that it’s too hard to follow. However if you can leap that first hurdle the rest comes very easy. I recommend this book.
… (more)
LibraryThing member madsvasan
In this beautiful novel, time manifests itself in many forms in Einstein's Dream. Couple of nice things i liked about this book - brevity and readability. It is difficult to convey heavy concepts in brief/readable chapters. Author has done an excellent job. Also i liked the philosophical stream that flows through this book.


Original language



Page: 0.3912 seconds