Telling Time in Einstein’s Dreams

I recently finished reading Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams, a bestselling novel from 1993 that walks through a series of fictionalized dreams Einstein had about time, inspiring the theory of relativity in 1905. Luckily Einstein’s Dreams reads as though it were the work of a lyricist or poet, not a physicist–it’s a stunning portrait of everyday life in time, in all its mystery. 

There are about 30 short dreams or chapters, each featuring a world in which time works in a peculiar way. In one, time is a circle, “The world repeats itself endlessly,” but no one realizes it–they simply keep living through the same events with no recollection. 

In another world, “cause and effect are erratic. Sometimes the first precedes the second, sometimes the second the first” (29). A woman blushes and becomes happy before–not after–smelling a flower or falling in love; predictions are sometimes postdictions; and “families comfort a dying uncle not because of a likely inheritance, but because he is loved at the moment” (32). 

In still another world, “there is no time. Only images. A child at the seashore, spellbound by her first glimpse of the ocean. A woman standing on a balcony at dawn, her hair down, her loose sleeping silks, her bare feet, her lips. . . A leaf on the ground in autumn, red and gold and brown, delicate” (57-8).
Naturally, some worlds were more compelling or memorable to me than others. I’ll describe three of them… 


The Higher the Slower

In one of my favorite of Lightman’s/Einstein’s worlds, everyone lived in the mountains–because time flows more slowly the farther from the center of the earth one is. The more time people spent at higher elevations, the more slowly they aged. Thus they would build their houses on high stilts on the highest peaks of mountains, only coming down for urgent business, “with haste, hurrying down their tall ladders to the ground, running to another ladder or to the valley below, completing their transactions, and then returning as quickly as possible to their houses or other high places” (23-4). Over time, they forget why higher is better. But they nonetheless pass down this way of life, and the fear of the valleys, to their children so that superstitions and prejudices about those who live closer to the ground become common place, as do intellectual rationales on the benefits of higher living. “They have even convinced themselves that thin air is good for their bodies, and following that logic, have gone on spare diets.” In the end, the population becomes as thin as skeletons, “old before their time” (24). In seeking to preserve their lives, in a way they lost them.

gray concrete house on green mountain
There are about 30 short dreams or chapters, each featuring a world in which time works in a peculiar way.

I liked this cautionary tale of saving time. Just as in this fictional world, we can become so preoccupied with “saving” time that we grow almost enslaved to it–almost to the point of delusion or amnesia. In our hustle and bustle to make the most of our time on this earth, we easily grow old before our time.

Sticky Time

Another favorite world was the one in which time was “sticky.”

“Hypothetically,” Lightman writes, “time might be smooth or rough, prickly or silky, hard or smooth. But in this world, the texture of time happens to be sticky.” Entire towns become locked into a particular time period with no hope of escaping; individuals, too, “become stuck in some point of their lives and do not get free” (47).

grayscale photography of spiderweb
“In this world, the texture of time happens to be sticky.”

Some individuals get trapped in happy moments–a woman gets stuck in a moment when she had a good relationship with her loving son, writing “to him at a long-defunct address, imagin[ing] the happy letters back” (49). So powerful is this memory that she remains oblivious to her actual son in realtime when he visits, begging her for money with glassy eyes, a puffy face, and a stumbling gait. Others get stuck in painful or tragic times. But it doesn’t really matter, since “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” (49).

Like many of the worlds presented in Einstein’s Dreams, I found myself wondering how different this dream of “sticky” time really was from our own. We all get stuck in time, in memories–they cling to us, beckon us, remind us. Whole societies can get lost in time, tied to the intractable recollection of past atrocities or prejudices. Lightman’s depiction of the world of sticky time reminded me that this tendency to get stuck in the past–however idyllic— is ultimately an isolating fabrication. As painful or unpredictable as the present may be, at least it is real–and the dimension of relationship. 

Time Flies

In the last of Einstein’s dreams, time is a “flock of nightingales,” it “flutters and fidgets and hops,” and–when trapped–stands still (137). Tempus fugit, as the ancients said, but in this world its flight can be halted.

flock of birds flying in the sky during sunset
In a world where time is like a nightingale, time flutters and fidgets and hops, and–when trapped–stands still.

When time is caught in this world, “the catchers delight in the moment now frozen.” They relish the expressions of their family standing around, the joy that surrounds them–they’ve secured the ultimate prize. But they “soon discover that the nightingale [of time] expires, its clear, flutelike song diminishes to silence, the trapped moment grows withered and without life” (138).  

A haunting, dare I say timely, image. 

Have you read this book before? If so, what was your favorite world? If you could imagine a different world of time, what would it be like?


  1. This book has been on my shelf since 1993, unread. (I worked in a bookshop for many years. Can that be my excuse?) I think its time has finally come. Thank you!

    1. Thanks for correcting this, Norman!! You’re right–actually in my head I did not mean that as literally as it came across. I meant just that the *prose* doesn’t read as though it were coming from a physicist and wrote that intro hastily 🙂 I’m going to go amend that now.

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