Einstein's Dreams | Study Guide

Alan Lightman

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Einstein's Dreams | 18 June 1905 | Summary



A line of 10,000 people stretches from a cathedral in Rome; they are waiting to enter the Temple of Time. Many have traveled a long distance to visit, and they seem oblivious to the time passing as they wait. Watches and clocks are forbidden—only the Great Clock in the Temple of Time keeps track of time. Inside the Temple 12 pilgrims stand in a circle surrounding the Great Clock; a huge pendulum swings between them while the pilgrims chant each measured increment of time. After an hour a new set of pilgrims takes their place; this process repeats for centuries.

Before the Great Clock people kept time by the sun, stars, and seasons, as well as heartbeats, sleep, hunger, and moods. Then someone invented the first mechanical clock. People were both impressed and horrified by it. The inventor of first clock then built the Great Clock; after inventing it he was killed and all other clocks were destroyed. Everyone knows they must journey at some point to pay homage to the Great Clock, which secretly angers them. They have been trapped by humans' own invention.


This is another dream world in which people attempt to take advantage of time. People are astonished that someone invented an object to quantify and measure time. Of course time already existed before clocks were invented, but now people perceive time in a new way. As in the other dream worlds in which people try to manipulate time, the people in this dream world ultimately feel trapped by their own invention, yet they don't know how to live without it. This object they find so magical is also unbearable because it counts down their lives. The narrator notes, "every action, no matter how little, is no longer free." Everything is now connected to time.

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