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Einstein's dreams.

There is something inherently charming about the "little book." We marvel at true miniatures -- books the size of postage stamps, exemplars of the printer's art before computers made the art moot. Slightly larger books prompt less marvel but perhaps more charm, progressing by some unstated principle until at some point they are simply books, permanent records of the most fluid of all things in the universe: ideas -- as if that were not marvel enough.

Alan Lightman's "novel," Einstein's Dreams, measuring a mere 4 inches by 6 inches -- what future rare-book catalogs will list as "foolscap 8vo" -- hits the mark on both counts. It is a charming wonder that defies definition. If the reviews are any indicator, it has pretty thoroughly defied description as well. We'll give it a shot.

Reading Einstein's Dream is like: (A) waking up inside a picture by Escher; (B) discovering that your entire life really is inside one of the books on the shelves of Jorge Luis Borges' library, or (C) being informed by your mother that your real name is Gregor Samsa. Strange dreams guaranteed.

But to begin at the beginning rather than with the cumulative effects (though the other way 'round may prove more enlightening), Alan Lightman (what a name for a physicist!) informs us that in 1905, while he was constructing his "new theory of time" -- meaning, though the book never mentions it, the Special Theory of Relativity contained in his paper "On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies" -- Einstein was plagued by a series of nightly dreams, each of which took place in a world governed by different standards of 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."

"Aha!" says the reader. "I am to discover which is the right dream!" And she or he is off in pursuit. Alas, poor reader, you need not hold your breath.

As we read this book, presented as virtually static vignettes, we see how the world would be if time moved backward; or if it moved waterlike in eddies and vortice; or if it resembled space in proceeding three ways at once; or if it had an approachable center; or if it moved more slowly the further it is removed from a source of gravity; et cetera.

The logical conundrums this presents the author -- himself an MIT physics professor -- are at once immense and delightful. Sorry to say, not all the conundrums have been worked out. For example, in the world where time moved backward, a man throws clods of earth on the coffin of a friend, looking forward to the time when the illness that killed him hasn't begun. In order for his depiction to be true, time would have to move backward in discrete forward-moving quanta -- not part of the given rules -- but then had the author actually described such a work in anything approaching rational completeness, well, the book would have come out in the year 2138, wouldn't it? And then were would we be?

In 2138, of course, and not reading this review.

But seriously, this collection of speculative moments does, in several ways, reflect Einstein's actual process of inquiry. As the great physicist wrote to his friend Philipp Frank in 1910, "In my relativity theory, I set up a clock at every point in space, but in reality, I find it difficult to provide even one clock in my room."

And which world is the correct one? As author Patrick McGoohan, another temporal prisoner, might says, "That would be telling." And we won't.

To tell the truth, we can't.
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Author:Milligan, Bryce
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 28, 1993
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