Einstein's Dreams | Study Guide

Alan Lightman

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Einstein's Dreams | 28 June 1905 | Summary



A grandmother scolds her son for eating too much at a picnic; soon thereafter the son leaps up to run after a flock of birds flying overhead. He is joined by others who have spotted the birds. One woman attempts to catch one bird perched in a tree, but it and the other birds are much too fast to catch. Each man and woman wants a bird because the birds are time—time that flutters and hops just ahead of them. By trapping a bird they hope to trap time. Only children are fast enough to trap the birds, but the children have no desire to stop time—they think time moves too slowly. Elderly people wish they could stop time for even a moment, but they are too old and slow to trap a bird. The rare adult who can trap a bird savors the moment of time but knows the bird will soon expire and time will proceed.


This final dream emphasizes yet again the futility of trying to manipulate time; people invariably end up unhappy with the results. People chase the birds to trap a fleeting moment, but the moment will expire and die with the bird. Here Lightman continues his cautionary tale: attempting to hold on to time or slow it down only makes people forget to enjoy the present moment. The birds are powerful symbols; they signify that time is free and fast, not meant to be trapped but to fly unimpeded. Lightman also presents one final paradox about how people react to trapping moments: those with the most time left to live can catch the birds most easily and thus trap moments at will yet they have little interest in doing so; those at the end of their lives would love to trap the birds and gain every moment possible but they are too slow.

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