Thursday, December 02, 2004

Einstein's Dreams

A random find, a serendipitous gem, pulled out of a tightly packed shelf in a Pay Less Bookstore. Yes, I frequent that store once too often, like a junkie returning again and again for his fix. But this is an amazing book and I lose myself in the mesmerizing imageries drawn out of Einstein’s thoughts on space and time.

I am talking about Alan Lightman’s 1993 book – his first – called, Einstein’s Dreams. Lightman teaches physics and writing at M.I.T, which probably explains his precise prose and deft touch. His words have the feel of a stone skipping on water. It is a beautiful book, and Salman Rushdie is right to compare it to Italo Calvino’s whimsical Invisible Cities. Nevertheless I think Lightman’s book is the more fascinating, giving voice to humanity’s fears, vanity, and hopes grappling with worlds gone out of whack.

What is it like to live in a word where cause and effect are erratic? In the dreams of Einstein:
Most people have learned how to live in the moment. The argument goes that if the past has uncertain effect on the present, there is no need to dwell on the past. And if the present has little effect on the future, present actions need not be weighed for their consequences. Rather, each act is an island in time, to be judged on its own. Families comfort a dying uncle not because of a likely inheritance, but because he is loved at that moment. Employees are hired not because of their resumes, but because of their good sense in interviews. Clerks trampled by their bosses fight back at each insult, with no fear for their future. It is a world of impulse. It is a world of sincerity.
Imagine possible worlds constructed out of different kinds of time! Although Einstein is referred to, the man is a mere visitor in the book, traipsing through the weird but wonderful vistas that are a homage to his ideas. Very clever and evocative. Some passages are suggestive of the illustrations of Chris Van Allsburg (I think of the 'Wreck of the Zephyr') or the pointillism of Seurat (eg 'Sunday Afternoon'). Then you turn the page and you’re smack in the middle of a swirling current captured in bullet-time slo-mo photography (like Neo’s climactic fight with Agent Smith in the Matrix), or dodging buildings that are being rearranged at uncommon speed (like Alex Proyas' Dark City). Intriguing. Here’s another excerpt:
Imagine a world in which there is no time. Only images.

A child at the seashore, spellbound by her first glimpse of the ocean. A woman standing on a balcony at dawn, her hair down, her loose sleeping silks, her bare feet, her lips. The curved arch of the arcade near the Zahringer Fountain on Kramgrasse, sandstone and iron. A man sitting in the quiet of his study, holding the photograph of a woman, a pained look on his face. An osprey framed in the sky, its wings outstretched, the sun rays piercing between feathers. A young boy sitting in an empty auditorium, his heart racing as if he were on stage. Footprints in snow on a winter island. A boat on the water at night, its lights dim in the distance, like a small red star in the black sky.
Lightman's book has a way of making you think about the consequences of time. You go away a little more contemplative, a lot more appreciative of the time you have been given.

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