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Einstein's Dreams | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


For what purpose does Einstein's Dreams depict so many paradoxes in the ways people handle time?

By showing the paradoxical ways in which people handle time in each dream world, the novel illustrates the subjective nature of time. Although people traditionally have kept track of time with the help of clocks, calendars, and physics, Lightman demonstrates throughout the novel that time can be experienced in myriad ways. Sometimes time seems to speed up or slow down; sometimes people are stuck in the past or anxious about the future. Experience and history can affect each individual's perception of time. The novel's narrator rarely passes judgment on the different ways in which people handle time, showing that there is no right or wrong way to conceive of time.

In 17 June 1905 of Einstein's Dreams why is time compared to "a stretch of nerve fibers"?

While experiencing "regular" world time, people think of time as linear. However, in this world time is not a continuous line; instead it includes microseconds of disconnection. These disconnections are too brief for anyone to notice; the narrator gives the metaphor of time as "a stretch of nerve fibers" and compares the tiny disconnections to "microscopic gaps between fibers." Time can leap through these gaps and then resume in "a neighboring segment" of time. This comparison helps the reader understand how these "leaps" can alter the state of time, even if they do so imperceptibly. The narrator tells a story of two people who have a misunderstanding based on the shift created by a microsecond of disconnection; neither person can explain what has happened. Lightman uses "a stretch of nerve fibers" to help the reader see what is hard to explain as an abstract concept.

How are people "free" or "trapped" before and after the Great Clock is built in 18 June 1905 of Einstein's Dreams?

In this world there is only one clock, the Great Clock, and all people must make a pilgrimage to it at some point in their lives. Before humans built the Great Clock, everyone measured time through moods and seasons, but now people see time in a different way. They know time is being tracked and quantified, so their sense of freedom has vanished. They have come to resent time, since "every action, no matter how little, is no longer free." People secretly resent having to make the pilgrimage to the Great Clock; "they have been trapped by their own inventiveness and audacity." The author emphasizes throughout the novel that attempting to control time has unanticipated consequences.

In 20 June 1905 of Einstein's Dreams why does the narrator observe, "the abundances caused by isolation are stifled by the same isolation?"

Since time operates differently in different locations in this world, people rarely leave their city of origin. If they do, they can never return because they have been cut off in time from their own city. Some people don't mind this isolation since they have nothing to compare it to; others yearn for contact with outsiders and are ultimately tempted to leave their city. Each city is entirely unique since no two places can influence each other no matter how close they are. Since cities can't share anything, each city's residents must provide for their own needs abundantly; in this sense their isolation breeds abundance. Yet the same isolation also cuts cities off from any outside influence, which can stifle their growth. Here the novel illustrates that opposites can be contained within a single world governed by a single rule of time.

How does the ballerina in 22 June 1905 of Einstein's Dreams illuminate the theme of free will?

During a performance a ballerina going through her dance routine "is a clock." Even though she thinks about her actions while performing them, she can't change them because "her movements are not hers." All her movements are predetermined, and there is no room for uncertainty. This description illustrates the theme of free will versus fate, inviting readers to consider how one can find meaning, risk, and reward in a life without free will. The ballerina is quite literally going through the motions, and the narrator suggests she doesn't necessarily enjoy this restriction. She is merely a "spectator" in her own life, which is choreographed in the same way her dancing is choreographed to the last movement.

What does the narrator imply about the past in 27 June 1905 of Einstein's Dreams?

The narrator depicts a man who is haunted for 40 years by an embarrassing moment from his schoolboy days; that single, sharp memory colors his every interaction from childhood onward. But the narrator notes perhaps "the firmness of the past is just illusion," and just like that the man shakes off the memory after 40 years, becoming someone else entirely. In this world the past is a place people continue to inhabit until it suddenly shifts, "like wheat in wind," and disappears as thought it never happened at all. The implication is memories of the past can deeply influence one's present and future; the past is perhaps more akin to a "kaleidoscope" than a firm boulder.

In 28 June 1905 of Einstein's Dreams how do the birds symbolize time?

The birds in this world symbolize time: they are fast moving, never still, and nearly impossible to catch or slow down. The city's young people—those most capable of catching the birds—are the least interested in doing so since they don't care about slowing time down. On the other hand the city's elderly—those least capable of catching the birds—yearn to do so, desperate for one more moment to freeze and savor. In real life, of course, people constantly chase after ways to slow time down and gain some control over it; the birds represent how fleeting, precious, and rare those moments of control can be.

How do rationalists and emotionalists react to time in Einstein's Dreams?

In each dream world people tend to respond to the way time functions with either rationalism or emotion. The rationalists tend to accept the limits of how time operates in their world and refuse to question their own sense of free will. They don't resist time, and their acceptance seems to make their lives easier. The emotionalists get stuck in time or react to it, and sometimes they suffer as a consequence. Lightman depicts several worlds in which rationalists and emotionalists are firmly divided, such as the world in which people wait to catch glimpses of their futures. In this case the rationalists refuse to take any actions that don't line up with their future; the emotionalists choose to live in and enjoy the present despite glimpsing the future.

Does Einstein's Dreams support or refute the idea that people are not capable of handling unlimited free will?

The critic Leah Tieger made such an assertion in response to the dream world in 9 June 1905, in which the people are immortal. Their knowledge of immortality divides them into two camps: Nows and Later, with the former trying to accomplish as much as possible and the latter putting things off since they'll never run out of time. But this concept of forever seems to diminish many people's free will, and they abandon many of their plans. In fact many people end up longing for death. Tieger says that although humans seem to believe "unmitigated free will" is the best possible outcome, we need the boundaries of time and death. In other words we need a sense of fate. Lightman seems to agree, since in many dream worlds he depicts the misery that envelops people when they realize they are solely responsible for their own happiness and sense of meaning.

For what purpose does Lightman use a third-person narrator instead of using Einstein to narrate Einstein's Dreams?

A third-person narrator offers some necessary distance between Einstein's subconscious and the reader. Without a direct glimpse into Einstein's thoughts and feelings, the reader is left to observe the workings of his mind through his dreams and through his interactions with his friend Besso. This leaves Einstein somewhat mysterious and allows readers to focus on his dreams' philosophical questions about time and humanity. A third-person narrator also can offer a broader and more detached view of the dream worlds and the Dream Figures who inhabit them. Having Einstein as a first-person narrator would offer more subjective and emotional insights, whereas the third-person narrator offers a more objective perspective on time and humanity.

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