On Goldstein’s Novels of Ideas: Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams

In March 2010, shortly after the release of 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, philosopher and novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein published her list of the five best “novels of ideas” in the Wall Street Journal. Goldstein’s list gave Michael Da Silva a starting point for a series of reviews. The fifth novel on her list was Alan Lightman’s 1993 bestseller Einstein’s Dreams.

As he sits in his patent office, “a room full of practical ideas,” Albert Einstein has produced the theory of time that will make him famous. As he waits for the arrival of the patent office typist who will type his handwritten notes, “the dreaming is finished. Out of many possible natures of time, imagined in as many nights, one seems compelling. Not that the other are impossible. The others might exist in other worlds.”

As it title suggests, Lightman’s novel primarily consists of short vignettes apparently describing these dreams, which took place on 30 dates between April and June of 1905. On Lightman’s construction, these dreams helped inspire Einstein’s work on time and the theory that would make him famous. Not all the representative dreams are consecutive, but they increase in pace as time goes on, perhaps suggesting further inspiration.

Einstein’s fame is not present in Lightman’s novel, although the possibility thereof is mentioned in one of the novel’s short interludes in which Einstein discusses his theory with a friend. Even the theory that made him famous is not at the centre of the story. The other worlds are highlighted instead. Each touches on concepts in physics, helping humanize the abstract. Their form is akin to a scientific thought experiment, bringing the poetic into scientific form. Several chapters begin by asking one to “Consider”, “Imagine” or “Suppose” a given scenario. It has been suggested that each world helps explain parts of Einstein’s theory, but taking the above passage from the prologue seriously suggests they are alternatives that help us explain Einstein only in comparison.

While Lightman only explicitly refers to philosophers in his discussion of a world where “the passage of time brings increasing order,” his novel also engages dense philosophical concepts. A world where everything is determined wades clearly into the waters of the free will debate and a world where there are two equally ‘true’ times challenges notions of truth values, while many worlds (including the world without memories) engage important questions about ethical action and the meaning of the good in differing circumstances.

In the years since the novel’s publication, each reader likely came up with his or her own set of favourites. The acausal world strikes me as particularly interesting since this arational world is a boon for artists and harm for scientists, evoking C.P. Snow’s ‘two cultures’ theory as the MIT-trained physicist’s novel disproves it. The final world in which time is a flock of nightingales wins the prize for bizarre submission.

While its narrative is thin, leading one to question its status as a ‘novel’ of ideas, Lightman’s book is an excellent collection of stories of ideas connected by moving imagery, some ironic situations, keen questioning about values and the presence of the Aare River. These aspects sufficiently connect the stories into a coherent whole that is well worth returning to.