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Einstein's Dreams | Context


Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein was born in Germany in 1879 to a middle-class Jewish family and was schooled in Switzerland. Unable to find a teaching job after he graduated, he first worked in a patent office similar to the one depicted at the start of Einstein's Dreams. While there he developed and wrote much of his theory of relativity, working off Isaac Newton's previous theories. He received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921. In 1932, shortly before Adolph Hitler became German chancellor, Einstein and his family immigrated to the United States to escape the dangers they faced as Jews, and he taught at Princeton University until 1945.

Einstein condemned violence in war and believed the welfare of humanity as a whole must always take precedence over individual nations' goals. In addition to his scientific pursuits, he worked diligently for peace and nuclear disarmament until his death in 1950. He is considered one of the greatest scientists and thinkers in history.

Theory of Relativity

Einstein's theory of relativity was published in 1905, but it didn't become widely accepted until the 1920s. While his work on the subject built off the work of previous scientists, Einstein's discoveries upended previous theories about the nature of time created by Isaac Newton. Newton believed that space and time operated independently of each other, and Einstein's theory investigated how to interpret motion between objects that are traveling at relatively the same speed. His findings revealed that time and space are linked in this relative way. Einstein ultimately combined his ideas about time and space into a single entity: spacetime. His theory of relativity is exemplified by the Global Positioning System (GPS), a navigation system featured in cars and smartphones that works accurately by relying on satellites using relativistic clocks accurate to the nanosecond.

In Einstein's Dreams Lightman creates a fictional version of Einstein in order to imagine how he might have conjured up these complicated theories while working as a patent clerk. To make the complicated science palatable to a wider audience, Lightman uses the idea of Einstein's dreams to help him work though a variety of theories and scenarios about time and its effect on people. This unique depiction also reflects the different approach that Einstein used to prove his theory: rather than assume that experiments were failures of correct theories he assumed the opposite—that the experiments were correct and the theories were what failed. This innovation in testing theories led to his discovery of relativity.

Einstein's Friend, the Swiss Engineer Michele Besso

While Albert Einstein's name is instantly recognizable to most readers, his friend, Michele Besso—named in the Interludes—is not, though he was just as real. Michele Besso, a Swiss engineer, was Einstein's longtime friend, and the two maintained a correspondence for more than 50 years. Einstein confided in his friend about everything from his personal relationships to his theories about time. Besso was born in Switzerland in 1873, and he met Einstein during a musical performance at a mutual friend's house. Einstein eventually introduced Besso to the woman he would marry, Anna, who is also featured in Einstein's Dreams. When Besso died at age 81, Einstein wrote a letter to his family that read, "Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion." His words reveal how closely linked to Besso he felt, both as a friend, a philosopher, and a scientist. Einstein passed away a month after Besso's death.

Lightman uses the character of Michele Besso to offer a different lens through which the reader can understand Einstein in his waking life. Other than Einstein's dreams, the reader is never given a glimpse into the working of Einstein's mind. In the Interlude sections featuring Besso, he tries to puzzle out what Einstein is thinking and how he is feeling. Lightman also shows Besso to be a human anchor for Einstein, keeping him tethered to the real world containing his wife and family.

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