One of the most characteristic aspects of today’s Western living is the fact that, as time goes by; we grow to appreciate the values of tolerance to ever-increasing extent. However, it is not only that the motivational force behind such state of affairs can be accessed through methodological lenses of liberal, but also ‘hard’ sciences, such as physics.
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The reason for this is simple – ever since Albert Einstein formulated the Theory of Relativity in 1905, the socio-political and religious discourses that revolve around the notion of ‘absolute’, had ceased to represent any ontological value, whatsoever.
According to Einstein, it is namely the system of coordinates, within which we perceive the evolution of a particular phenomena, which defines such phenomena’s spatial subtleties. Therefore, when assessed from the point of view of different systems of coordinates, the spatial subtleties of the same phenomena will appear qualitatively different.
In other words, the event A and event B that simultaneously occur in system C, will appear to occur consequentially, when we observe them from the perspective of system D. Thus, within the methodological framework of Theory of Relativity, the physical constants that have traditionally been associated with the concept of ‘absolute’, such as physical objects’ dimensions, mass and even the flow of time itself are being referred to as relative.
The qualitative essence of a discussed subject matter depends on a perspective from we choose to discuss it. What it means is that there can be no ‘truth’ as ‘thing in itself’. And, once there is no ‘truth’, there is no need indulge in political or religious violence, while trying to ensure the primacy of one ideology/religion over another.
Thus, it is quite inappropriate to refer to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity as such that has purely scientific significance – as he have shown earlier, this theory directly relates to the essence of socio-political realities in post-industrial world. Therefore, it makes perfectly logical sense for physicists to strive to popularize Theory of Relativity to the broader audiences, as they rightly perceive it as such that relates to people’s everyday lives rather directly.
In this paper, we will aim to substantiate the validity of such our thesis, by summarizing, analyzing and reflecting upon Alan Lightman’s 1992 novel Einstein’s Dreams, as we believe that the reading of this particular novel provides people with insight onto what had helped Einstein to succeed with accomplishing one of 20th century’s most important scientific breakthroughs, and also onto an overall humanitarian significance of Einstein’s theory.
Einstein’s Dreams is the hypothetical retelling of dreams; Albert Einstein had supposedly been having through spring and summer of 1905, when he worked on designing the Theory of Relativity.
Given the fact that Lightman’s novel features the absence of a classical plot, and also the fact that novel’s thirty chapters (dreams) appear semantically unrelated, in literary sense of this word, it would only make a logical sense for us to proceed with the task by summarizing the essence of themes and motifs, contained in these chapters, rather then focusing on the discussion of chapters’ plot-related semiotics.
In order to ensure paper’s structural integrity, we will summarize novel’s themes and motifs by dividing novel in three equal parts, with ten chapters in each part.
April 14, 1905 – May 10, 1905
Throughout the course of novel’s entirety, Lightman provides readers with the number of insights onto the subtleties of time and onto the relative essence of time’s emanations. The ten initial insights can be summarized as follows:
- Time is best discussed as something concurrently rather than linearly defined, because the relativity of the concept of spatiality implies the existence of parallel universes, which in its turn, explains the phenomenon of Déjà vu: “In the world in which time is a circle, every handshake, every kiss, every birth, every word, will be repeated precisely” (5).
- The flow of time can be compared to the flow of water in the river. In springtime, rivers become overflown with water. So it is with people – every once in a while, their lives become overflown with time: “In this world, time is like a flow of water, occasionally displaced by a bit of debris, a passing breeze” (6).
- The events in every person’s life lead to simultaneously different outcomes, due to time’s multiple-dimensionality: “In this world, time has three dimensions, like space” (10).
- In this world, there are two ‘times’ – biological and mechanical, which do not always correlate with each other: “There is mechanical time and there is body time” (11).
- The flow of time is geometrically counter-proportionate to the distance from the center of the Earth, which is why people subconsciously strive to build houses on high grounds – they believe that by doing it, they will extend the span of their lives: “People most eager to live longest have built their houses on the highest stilts” (14).
- The notion of time is an objective notion, which is why is has traditionally been associated with the notion of divinity: “Those of religious faith see time as the evidence for God” (16).
- Causes and effects do not relate to each other in dialectical but rather in erratic manner – sometimes, effects precede causes. Nevertheless, causes and effects always derive out of each other: “Future and past are entwined” (18).
- The reason why under normal circumstances the flow of time is barely felt is that ‘normal circumstances’ imply existential stagnation: “If time and the passage of events are the same, then time moves barely at all” (23).
- The notion of the end of the world is synonymous to the notion of the end of time. The end of the world implies the victory of entropy’s forces. In its turn, entropy’s victory implies equality: “In a world of one day they (people) are equal” (27).
- People that are being trapped in time cannot adequately address the challenges of a present. This is exactly what fills their lives with misery: “The tragedy of this world is that no one is happy, whether stuck in a time of pain or of joy” (31).
May 11, 1905 – June 9, 1905
- Since time defines the qualitative subtleties of non-organic and organic evolution, it can be thought as the measure of order in university, because evolution actively opposes the forces of energetic entropy: “If time is an arrow, that arrow points toward order” (32).
- The flow of time can be slowed down to the extent that split of a second becomes an eternity: “There is a place where time stands still. Raindrops hang motionless in air” (33)
- The hypothetical visualizations of the absence of time imply nonsense: “A bead of water on the window. A coiled rope. A yellow brush” (38).
- There is no ‘past’ as something that exists simultaneously with the ‘present’. Past is rather an ideal ‘substance’, which is why it can only exist in people’s minds or in reflection of their minds’ workings – books and documents: “The past exists only in books, in documents” (39).
- The flow of time is not evenly continuous but rather sporadic: “In this world, time flows not evenly but fitfully and, as consequence; people receive fitful glimpses of the future” (41).
- The reason why most people live in the state of a constant rush is that such mode of their existence helps them to slow down the stream of time: “In this world time passes mere slowly for people in motion” (43).
- In order to be able to adopt a proper view of time, one must be ready to expect unexpected: “A man stands at the graveside of his friend… He looks ahead to the day when… his friend will be out of his bed and laughing” (50).
- While facing life’s challenges, people grow too appreciate time as their greatest asset, which is why one’s tendency to waste time is being considered a vice: “Time is too precious. A life is a moment in season” (52).
- The workings of people’s sensory apparatus define their perception of time: “In a world where time is a sense, like sight or like taste, a sequence of episodes may be quick or may be slow” (55).
- The reason why continuous flow of time is being closely associated with the notion of mortality is that, had time been associated with immortality, people’s existence would cease making any sense, whatsoever. It is namely people’s mortality that stimulates them to adopt active stance in life: “The Nows are constantly reading new books, studying new trades, new languages. In order to taste the infinities of life, they begin early and never go slowly” (56).
June 10, 1905 – June 28, 1905
- Since, when being projected upon people’s lives, time implies a varying degree of perceptional intensity, time must be discussed in qualitative terms: “In a world where time is a quality, events are recorded by the color of the sky” (60).
- The scientific understanding of time suggests the impossibility of fortune telling and prophesying: “Imagining the future is no more possible than seeing colors beyond violet” (62).
- The subtleties of time can be visualized: “In this world, time is a visible dimension” (64).
- Time cannot be thought of as ‘thing in itself’ – it is namely the particulars of people’s physiology that correlate with how they perceive time: “Time is a stretch of nerve fibers: seemingly continuous from a distance but disjointed close up” (67).
- When an individual comes to realization of its own mortality, he or she becomes predisposed towards sanctifying time: “Each man and woman must journey to the Temple of Time” (72).
- The flow of time in two different systems of coordinates remains correlative only for as long as these systems are being located close to each other: “Clocks separated by distance tick at different rates, the farther apart the more out of step” (73).
- The flow of times determines the qualitative essence of surrounding realities: “Every action, every thought, every breath of wind, every flight of birds is completely determined, forever (by time)” (76).
- One’s ability to ‘travel back in time’ is being defined by the extent of his or her imaginativeness: “Time bounces back and forth, producing an infinite number of images, of melodies, of thoughts” (79).
- The manner in which we perceive past has little to do with how past had actualized itself in reality, when it was present: “Events, once happened, lose reality, alter with a glance, a storm, a night” (82).
- In order to be able to enjoy life in general, one must learn how to appreciate life’s precious moments in their ‘stillness’: “The moment is frozen for all people and trees and soil caught within” (85).
The significance of Lightman’s novel can hardly be underestimated, because by helping readers to gain a better understanding of time’s subtleties, author simultaneously provides them with the insight onto the main ideas, behind Eienstein’s Theory of Relativity.
Nevertheless, the close reading of Einstein’s Dreams, points out to the fact that, in many instances, author misrepresented Einstein’s perception of time. For example, sometimes Lightman discusses time as physical rather than purely ideal category, which in its turn, undermines the soundness of many ideas, articulated in the novel.
It is important to understand that the concept of ‘time’ is nothing but simply the professional term, to which physicists resort while trying to simplify the procedural framework of theoretical calculations – much like the term ‘energy’. There is a motion, perceived as the measure of kinetic energy. There is a height of physical object’s elevation, perceived as the measure of such object’s potential energy. There are electromagnetic waves, to which physics often refer to as ‘energy’.
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Yet, there is no ‘energy’ as ‘thing in itself’ – ‘energy’ is just a figure of speech. The same can be said about time. In the universe, there is no ‘time’ per se – there is just physical matter in the state of perpetual motion. This is exactly the reason why time is being measured by the motion of hands in mechanical watch, by the downpour of sand in sand-watch, and by the flow of electrons in electronic watch.
Therefore, it is quite impossible to agree with Lightman when he implies that time has ‘quality’. Quality is an attribute of objectively existing objects’ physical emanations. However, since time is essentially an ideal concept (much like an ideal gas), or rather – the figure of speech, it cannot have quality, by definition.
After Einstein had discovered E=mc2 formula, people with little understanding of physics assumed that by discovering this formula, he defined how energy, time and matter interrelate. In reality, however, the application of E=mc2 formula simply allows physicists to express energy in mass units (kilograms), and to express mass in energy units (joules) – that is about it.
Therefore, even though Einstein’s Dreams does contain a number of perfectly legitimate suggestions, as to particulars of how people perceive the drift of time, Lightman’s novel nevertheless cannot be considered completely faultless, in conceptual sense of this word.
As it was rightly pointed out by Strawson (1993): “He (Lightman) presents himself as a sensitive collector of precious particularities, and some of them come off. But his close observation is somehow fraudulent. It shows no real concern for detail” (The Independent). This, however, only slightly affects novel’s literary value. In this next part of our paper, we will explore the validity of this suggestion at length.
Despite the fact that, as we have mentioned earlier, in his novel Lightman sometimes tends to treat time as essentially material category, novel’s overall sounding promotes the view on time as not simply one of physical constants, but rather as the measure of how these constants relate to each other. Thus, it will only be logical to go about explaining the presence of conceptual inconsistencies in the novel by the particulars of a literary genre, chosen by the author as representational medium.
While referring to Einstein’s Dreams, in her review-article Bell (1996) states: “Lightman redefined the nature of plot and the possibilities of action, either internal or external… In very real terms, he has taken us on the process by which scientific thought becomes, on one hand, theory and on the other, art “(121). Apparently, Einstein’s Dreams cannot be thought of as a scientific work, but rather as science-inspired.
Therefore, the fact that throughout the novel, Lightman implies time’s materialness, can be explained by essentially poetic manner, in which author conveys his time-related ideas to the readers. Just as Friedrich Nietzsche, in his famous work Thus Spake Zaratustra, Lightman expounds onto discussed subject matter from highly personal perspective, which explains somewhat irrational sounding of ideas, contained in the novel.
Nevertheless, as a whole, Einstein’s Dreams should be regarded as essentially ‘specialized’ literary work – while being highly renowned physicist himself (hence, possessing a scientific mindset), Lightman had succeeded in ridding his novel of moralistic, religious and politically correct overtones – thus, adding to objectively defined literary and philosophical value of Einstein’s Dreams.
As we have stated in Introduction, by providing readers with insights onto the very concept of time, and by introducing them to what he believes were the inspirational motives, behind the creation of Theory of Relativity, Lightman had succeeded in exposing the notion of ‘absolute’ as utterly erroneous. In our opinion, this is exactly what accounts for novel’s socio-political significance, as it exposes the concept of tolerance as scientifically substantiated.
In scientifically and culturally advanced post-industrial society of intellectually flexible urbanites, no political or religious ideology should be concerned with imposing its dogmas upon society’s members. As Theory of Relativity had proven beyond any doubt – it is specifically the perspective that defines the particulars of our perception of a particular physical object or event.
Therefore, there can be no ‘truth’ deserving to be imposed upon others, especially if it happens despite their will. Given the fact that, throughout novel’s entirety, Lightman subtly promotes an idea that people should be concerned with making the best of their own lives, as opposed to trying to ‘improve’ the lives of others, it will not be much of an exaggeration to suggest that novel’s themes and motifs fully correlate with the foremost conceptual premise of Einstein’s theory.
In its turn, this advance even further the idea that in 21st century, it will not be religion providing people with answers of how they should tackle life’s challenges, but solely science. Since Einstein’s theory endorses the validity of relativist outlook onto surrounding realities, we can say that it is specifically inside the core of this theory, where political scientists should seek the origins of 20th century’s concept of pluralism.
Bell, Elizabeth “He’s Relatively Familiar: Albert Einstein in Contemporary American Fiction”. Journal of American Culture 19.2 (1996): 119-125.
Lightman, Alan “Einstein’s Dreams”. 1993. Esnips/Scribd. 15 Dec. 2010. Web.
Strawson, Galen “Time out of Mind: Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman – loomsbury Pounds 11.99”. 1993. The Independent. 15 Dec. 2010. https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/book-review-time-out-of-mind-einsteins-dreams-by-alan-lightman-bloomsbury-pounds-1199-1471604.html