Sunday, May 9, 2010

Book Fifty-One: Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman (and 51B: A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conon Doyle)

Einstein is often described as much as an artist as he is a scientist. His picture adorns the walls of many college students, quotes show up in a range of contexts, and most people seem to know some unusual fact about this unique and brilliant man. But what drives his work, especially as it relates to time?

Physicist Alan Lightman plays with this question in Einstein's Dreams, his 1992 "novel" centered around Einstein's dreams as he works on his theory of time. Of course, we do not know what Einstein dreams, so Lightman imagines the different scenarios we can play out with the concept of time.

The book is split into 30 short chapters each exploring a different concept of time (see below for the full listing). They are tied loosely together by "Interludes" where Einstein interacts with Michele Besso, a real life friend of Einstein. I put "novel" in quotation marks since this book raises the issues of what constitutes a novel, although I'm not going to explore that at this time. While the general concept ties this book together, this is more a collection of short explorations on time and its possibilities. 

Many of these are interesting, but Lightman stops at raising ideas without exploring the outcome. Where this book could work best is for aspiring writers who want an idea to build on. For example, in "20 May 1905" he envisions a world without memory. People create life books in order to write down what happens so they can "remember" the next day. On the one hand there is the challenge of remembering what address you live at (and thus they write it down), yet you also get to experience your first encounter with your husband or wife as new every night. Lightman does this throughout, showing how time does impact our existence in every way.

In "11 June 1905" he explores what is in some ways the opposite, a life in which people cannot conceive of a future. From the simplicity of a man watching a storm approaching, but cannot fathom that it will rain (since that is the future), to a scene of two men embracing goodbye over and over since they cannot imagine seeing one another again. Lightman raises the issue of how does what we think about the future impact the present.

Apparently this book is popular in universities, and it is easy to see why. The book raises questions which lead to discussion, although he himself fails to explore the issues. If you want a classic "dorm room midnight discussion," just grab this book and read a quick chapter aloud. Professors can sit back and let students discuss the possibilities in class with little more direction -- that is where the book succeeds.

But on its own the book does not offer enough. Lightman could have made this book stronger by covering less, but in more detail. Borges and Saramago take similar themes and give them more consideration, and as a result offer more to the reader. But if you wish to have questions to ponder and need something to start the thinking, Lightman's book is the answer.

Lightman himself sounds like an interesting person. He is a novelist, essayist, physicist, and educator. In addition to his writing, he is the Adjunct Professor of Humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has written nearly 18 books, and they split between literature (fiction/poetry), science, and essays. Einstein's Dreams was his first novel and it received a great deal of praise, despite my somewhat tempered reaction. It would be interesting to see where his later work has led him.

You can read more about him at his website.

Here is a snyposis of all the chapters as explained on an academic website:
See full information here

14 April 1905 (8)

Time is a circle; individual experience endlessly repeats itself

16 April 1905 (13)
Time is like a flow of water, sometimes moving backward

19 April 1905 (18)
Time has three dimensions; each act has three possible outcomes

24 April 1905 (23)
There are two times, mechanical and body

26 April 1905 (28)
Time flows more slowly the farther one is from the center of the earth

28 April 1905 (33)
Time is absolute, an infinite ruler

3 May 1905 (38)
Cause and effect are erratic; at times effect precedes cause

4 May 1905 (43)
Time passes, but little happens

8 May 1905 (55)
Time is captured in its last moments, the end of the world

10 May 1905 (61)
Those trapped in time are alone, and no one is happy

11 May 1905 (66)
The passage of time brings increasing order

14 May 1905 (70)
Time stands still

15 May 1905 (75)
There is no time; there are only images

20 May 1905 (80)
People have no memories

22 May 1905 (85)
The world is a world of changed plans, leaving many things incomplete

29 May 1905 (90)
Time passes slowly for people in motion, thus everything moves

2 June 1905 (102)
Time flows backward

3 June 1905 (107)
People live just one day, but that day may be an eternity

5 June 1905 (112)
Time is a sense like taste

9 June 1905 (117)
People live forever, dividing into two populations: Laters and Nows

10 June 1905 (123)
Time cannot be measured; it is a quality

11 June 1905 (128)
There is no future; time is a line that terminates at the present

15 June 1905 (133)
Time is visible; one can step into the future or remain in the present

17 June 1905 (138)
Time is discontinuous, containing gaps and pauses

18 June 1905 (148)
There is a Great Clock in the Temple of Time

20 June 1905 (153)
Time is local; clocks separated by distance tick at different rates

22 June 1905 (159)
Time is rigid; every action and thought is determined

25 June 1905 (163)
Time and event may be copied infinitely with different futures

27 June 1905 (167)
In a world of shifting pasts, the past may be firm or forgotten

28 June 1905 (172)
Time is a nightingale, fluttering and flying, pursued by those who would stop time in a bell jar.

A Study In Scarlet
My revisiting of the Sherlock Holmes canon goes to the beginning with A Study in Scarlet, which features the immortal greeting of Holmes to Watson ("You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive") and the beginning of a long relationship between two friends. It is interesting to note that the 1887 appearance of this short novel did not exactly capture the public's attention. The next novel, which I'm about to start, is The Sign of Four and that one did not do much better. The interest arose with the short stories, of which the initial ones were later pulled together in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which I reviewed last week.

A Study in Scarlet is interesting on many levels. The most striking part of it is the fact nearly a third of the book does not involve Holmes or Watson, instead focusing on a father and his adopted daughter who meet up with Brigham Young and the Mormons in the American West. An entire story builds in this section which includes Doyle's somewhat patronizing and stereotypic portrayal of American Indians, and the Mormons take a strong beating (in fact, quite literally). When I was younger and reading these stories all the time I began skipping that section, but this time I really paid attention and it shows that Doyle can create a suspenseful plot line, which he often fails to do in some of the stories. The dialogue is at times contrived and sentimental, but considering the time it was written this is not shocking.

Holmes comes off how I best like him: intelligent, self-absorbed, egotistical, and rude. Okay, not a recipe for a friend, but what excels here is his honesty. His is smarter than most so why not say it? I'm sure some Sherlockian literature in the recent past has tied his behavior to Asperger's Syndrome, and that would be interesting to read. He seems to clearly deal with Aspergers; it is what also allows him to focus so completely on a matter at hand.

What surprised me a few times was the mention of him being young. Watson is by now a doctor with time in Afghanistan and is likely around 30, so Holmes may be in his late 20s. Of course, reading this as a child I would see that as ancient, but as an old man now I see his youth for being just that -- youth. As the stories grow so does his age, and there is a maturing of the young, brash detective in the later works.

Next Up
The final week approaches and I end my project with Jane Austen's first novel, Sense and Sensibility.


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