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Einstein's Dreams | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


In the Prologue of Einstein's Dreams why does the narrator describe the setting as "a room full of practical ideas"?

The narrator takes great care to describe the immediate setting of the Prologue as dawn shifts into day. He highlights a contrast between the desks "neatly covered with documents" and Einstein's desk "cluttered with half-opened books." As other objects in the room gain recognition in the light, it becomes clear that the office deals with patents for "practical ideas," such as drilling gear or electrical transformers. These practical things only contrast with the extraordinary and unprecedented work that Einstein is discovering about the nature of time and set both him and his work apart from this mundane office environment.

What is the effect of the present-tense point of view in Einstein's Dreams?

The present tense lends the novel a dreamlike quality that emphasizes time's complex nature. While the dream titles suggest that time passes in a traditionally chronological way, each vignette depicts a different world in which time functions differently. In a sense the vignettes might be rearranged without a loss of meaning. The Dream Figures allow readers to concentrate on ideas rather than character progression. In fact the only character readers follow intermittently is Einstein himself, but his role as a character fades into the background of the Interludes.

In Einstein's Dreams how does Einstein's understanding of time change his character along with his understanding of the universe?

Einstein spends much of the novel obsessing about time: dreaming of it, writing about it, working out the physics of it. Although he is smart enough to work out the physics of time on his own, his dreams also help him come to an understanding about time that aids his scientific knowledge. Yet Einstein's scientific understanding of time also leads him to consider the philosophical underpinnings of time and how it relates to themes of fate, free will, relationships, humanity, and consequences. Lightman implies that even though Einstein required an advanced understanding of physics in order to develop his theory of time, he also needed to understand time on a more "dreamlike" level in order to see its full potential.

In Einstein's Dreams how do Einstein's dreams develop his character?

Even though the reader only glimpses Einstein in the Prologue, Interludes, and Epilogue, the character's dreams reveal much about his understanding of people, the world, and time. Recurring themes and motifs come up throughout the dream vignettes much in the same way that recurring dreams happen to real people, reflecting their mind's preoccupations and worries. Many of Einstein's dreams deal with the subjective nature of time, as well as of people's conflicting feelings about the past, present, and future. His dreams reveal Einstein's deep understanding of the paradoxes of both time and the way that people perceive time. The author's choice to reveal Einstein's character in this way gives readers a different kind of access to his internal world than just observing him through thoughts and actions.

What role do love and relationships play in Einstein's Dreams?

In the worlds Einstein dreams, the nature of love and relationships has a great deal to do with how time functions. Although the reader rarely follows a single character from one world to the next, each character's anonymous hopes, fears, and dreams are universal in scope and nature. Many characters yearn to recapture the past in some way, to relive the first moments of love. In all the worlds relationships are complex regardless of how time functions; yet at the heart of each world is an emphasis on their complications. Many worlds attempt to slow down time so that people can spend more time together or so that people can live in an endless circle of repetition.

In 14 April 1905 of Einstein's Dreams what does the narrator imply about time as a circle?

In a world where time functions as a circle, people are doomed or blessed to live their lives in endless repetition. Yet they are unaware they are doing so, which means prior knowledge does not affect their decisions. The narrator says such people know nothing more than "an ant crawling round the rim of a crystal chandelier knows that it will return to where it began." In a sense such ignorance is desirable. In fact those who have the uneasy sense they have lived their lives before are the most unhappy, since they sense all of their mistakes already occurred and therefore cannot be altered. This implication overlaps with the idea of fate, since in a way these people seem to have no control over their actions and the outcomes of their actions.

In Einstein's Dreams what is the effect of the novel's structure?

The novel consists of a series of vignettes—bookended by a Prologue and Epilogue and interspersed with Interludes—which provides a dreamlike, poetic structure. The story ends nearly where it begins, in Einstein's office before and after he falls asleep. Everything between is a dream or a memory. It is a nontraditional structure in that the reader does not follow a main character through actions and conflicts; this structure frees the reader to contemplate instead the philosophical puzzles and paradoxes about time laid out in Einstein's dreams. The effect is that of being immersed in Einstein's subconscious as his brain works out the problems of time, memory, fate, and free will.

Why are most main characters in Einstein's Dreams Dream Figures without traditional character arcs?

The dream world of the novel is inhabited by an endless parade of Dream Figures who live in recognizable places yet must work out the issues of time, relationships, and free will in the dream world they inhabit. None of these characters have names, and so they come to stand in for ideas, worries, hopes, and fears common to the majority of people. Since we only meet them—or so the reader is led to believe—once per dream world, we don't follow any of them down a traditional character arc. Rather they are like the nameless, faceless figures who inhabit dreams, and they serve as allegories. This allows the reader to focus on the paradoxes and philosophies of time presented in Einstein's dreams and to view the Dream Figures as symbolic of how individuals cope with the concept of time.

In 16 April 1905 of Einstein's Dreams how does time differ from the previous chapter 14 April 1905, and how does it affect fate differently?

In the world of 16 April 1905 time does not circle back around; instead it flows like water. Sometimes bits of time flow back downstream, however, and people are carried back to points in their past. Yet those individuals are terrifyingly aware of the ways in which altering their past can affect their future, and they take great care not to disturb a thing. Whereas in 14 April 1905, circling time means people are largely governed by fate beyond their control, and so they are unaware of how their past will affect their future. In the world of 16 April 1905 any alteration of the past can affect the future, meaning people have much more agency than those who are held hostage by fate.

What does the narrator mean when he calls a person from the future "an exile of time" in 16 April 1905 of Einstein's Dreams?

The narrator notes that if a person from the future "makes the slightest alteration in anything, he may destroy the future." But people from the future also are forced to witness the past without taking part in it, and this can make them envious of the people who are ignorant of the effects of their actions. Exiles of time live outside the choices and consequences of their lives, and if they become stuck they can never have their lives back. They will always be on the outside of their own lives looking in, so "they are left alone and pitied" by those around them. To be exiled is to be left out, and this sense of loneliness and alienation plagues many of the Dream Figures who inhabit these dream worlds.

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