Einstein's Dreams | Study Guide

Alan Lightman

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Einstein's Dreams | 24 April 1905 | Summary



In this world there are two times: mechanical and body. Mechanical time is rigid and predetermined, like a swinging pendulum; body time squirms and is unfixed. Many don't believe mechanical time exists: they don't see clocks or understand the time reflected on their watches. Instead they keep time by their heartbeats, moods, and desires. Body time speeds up or slows down according to what people experience: bad things slow time down; good things speed it up.

However, some live by mechanical time alone. These people keep a rigid, set schedule. They think of the body as a "collection of chemicals, tissues, and nerve impulses"; it is a machine governed by the same rules as a clock. Although both kinds of time are true, their "truths are not the same."


In this dream world Lightman continues the investigation of time as subjective, even when it has its own "rules." Those who believe in mechanical time lead a rigid existence; those who perceive body time instead "listen to their heartbeats ... they feel the rhythms of their moods and desires." In contrast to mechanical time, body time defies quantification. Here Lightman shows the concept of the divided self, at war between head and heart when it comes to making rational decisions. For those experiencing either kind of time, the experience feels true but the outcomes differ: "each time is true, but the truths are not the same." For those who perceive mechanical time, even though their time is true its truths are in a different realm of perception than body time. Neither group can understand the other's way of perceiving time, and here Lightman points out how important the perception of time as true is to people, and how different it can feel at the same time.

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