If time is river, everything is relative

March 29, 1993|By Diane Scharper | Diane Scharper,Contributing Writer

Consider a world in which time is like the flow of water Something -- a leaf, a bit of debris -- will interrupt the water's flow. Then a rivulet of time will turn away from the mainstream and make a connection backward. Birds, soil, people caught in this rivulet will suddenly find themselves carried to the past. People who have been transported back are easy to recognize. They wear dark clothes and keep a low profile. They remain inconspicuous, fearing that any change could have drastic consequences for the future. They're forced to witness events without being part of them. Exiles of time, they are "an inert gas, a ghost, a sheet without a soul."

This could have been one of the dreams that Albert Einstein experienced as he researched his theory of relativity. "Einstein's Dreams," a first novel by Alan Lightman, teacher of physics and writing at MIT, supposes many such dreams.

Although the book is called a novel, it doesn't seem like one. It has no protagonist and no plot. It does have a setting: supposedly in Berne, Switzerland, in 1905. But it's actually set somewhere deep in Einstein's mind. Here is the source and inspiration for this odd little book that reads more like a meditation than a story. It is a meditation, moreover, with a prologue, an epilogue, three interludes and 30 dreams.

Its subject isn't so much the nature of time as it is the way we perceive the nature of time. A book like this could be difficult, deadly. Yet it is interesting, pleasant to read. The writing is alive, charged with images and poetry.

The book has a surrealistic atmosphere and resembles a kind of philosophical fairy tale. The Marc Chagall painting, "Of Time and the River," where a fish carries a clock and floats in the sky, would have made an excellent cover.

Time, Mr. Lightman says, is something profound. But things profound are profound only because they are too simple for us to understand. Time is not the 28 days from one moon to the next. It's not the 24 hours from one sun to the next. It's not the clock or the calendar. Time is infinite, but it is also immediate, so immediate that it's almost impossible to think about -- except for a person such as Einstein. Time is God, Godlike, and an attribute of God. In fact, one of the interludes has Einstein wishing to understand time, because he wants to get close to "The Old One."

Einstein, though, is reminded by his friend, Michele Besso, that "The Old One" may not wish to get close to his creations, intelligent or not. Knowledge does not necessarily yield closeness, Besso adds.

Love does. Einstein (not to mention Mr. Lightman), continuously thinking about the nature of the universe, falls in love with his thinking and creates the universes in this book.

Reading the book, we can believe that time could resemble a circle or be like the flow of water. We can see time having three dimensions. We can accept two times, a body time and a mechanical time. We can think of time as flowing more slowly the farther one gets from the earth. Time can be speeded up or compressed. Time can be an absolute. A world where time ends can exist. So can a world were time is visible. We can have worlds without a future or a past. We can have a world where people get stuck in time and a world where time stands still.

The possibilities are endless, Mr. Lightman suggests. The beauty of the book is that we agree.

Title: "Einstein's Dreams."

Author: Alan Lightman.

Publisher: Pantheon.

Length, price: 179 pages, $17.

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