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Einstein's Dreams | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


In Einstein's Dreams in what ways can time be considered a setting?

Both Einstein's waking world and his dream worlds are physically set in Berne, Switzerland, but time plays at least as significant a role as place in the novel. In each of Einstein's dream worlds the reader is immersed in a new time setting, and this setting affects everything in that world. Having so many different time settings occur in the same place emphasizes how enormous an effect time has on people's conception of their world. It also allows readers to immerse themselves in each new concept of time. For Lightman time is as important a setting as place—if not more so.

How do philosophy and physics intersect in Einstein's Dreams?

Philosophy and physics intersect in unusual and interesting ways in the novel. Lightman takes philosophical concepts such as free will and the nature of humanity and overlays them with ideas about the physical mechanics of time. By examining these concepts through the lens of different disciplines, Lightman points to ways in which the philosophical and the physical can reinforce and interact with each other. For example, humanity's individual conception of time plays a large role in how individuals view their own sense of free will and also influences their relationships with each other. The way humans view time directly affects their own beliefs about how they live their lives. Each dream world in the novel illustrates a different outcome of these interactions. Since the author is both a scientist and a writer, he can illuminate dense concepts about science and philosophy in both poetic and easily understandable ways.

In what ways can Einstein's Dreams be considered an extended metaphor?

Extended metaphors provide comparisons that may thread through an entire work. Since Einstein's Dreams is composed of many similar yet different vignettes showing different worlds that have unique time structures, it stands as an extended metaphor for time itself and the subjective ways in which people experience time. The novel can also be seen as an extended metaphor for humanity; each of Einstein's dream worlds is inhabited by mostly nameless Dream Figures who stand in for humanity as a whole. These two extended metaphors interact throughout the novel to show the ways in which humanity conceives of and experiences time.

In 11 May 1905 of Einstein's Dreams what do the philosophers mean when they say, "without a trend toward order, time would lack meaning"?

In depicting Einstein's many dream worlds, Lightman raises the question of how humanity makes meaning out of time. Since individuals each have a unique perception of time, everyone's experience of time differs, as does the way they make meaning from that experience. People's individual conceptions of fate and free will are also inextricably linked to how they experience time in their world. In the dream world of 11 May 1905 the world only becomes more "orderly" as time carries on. This leads to a yearly "revolt" in which people attempt to destroy the order and create chaos. When the philosophers say, "without a trend toward order, time would lack meaning," they seem to question the relationship between order and a sense of free will. For them the world seems to contain more meaning as it grows more orderly; it seems to be more "fated."

In what ways can Einstein's Dreams be considered an argument about the nature of time?

Einstein's Dreams can be considered an argument about the nature of time, particularly in its focus on the effect of time on the conception of fate versus free will. By presenting multiple vignettes of dream worlds that experience time in different ways, Lightman implicitly argues about the ways in which different structures of time influence individuals. Lightman sets up multiple paradoxes regarding the ways people react to time; he is careful not to infer one way is right and one way is wrong, only noting the differences between them. He also uses the paradoxes of time to illuminate an argument about free will versus fate—inherently it seems that humanity's beliefs about these philosophical concepts are linked to how they perceive the effect of time on their own individual lives.

How does Einstein's Dreams reveal humanity's anxieties about the past, present, and future?

The novel is concerned largely with how individuals' perception of time influences the way they see the past, present, and future. Each dream world presents a paradox in which people behave in extreme and opposite ways based on their perceptions of time. In some worlds people experience anxieties about the possibility of influencing the past to alter the future, such as in the dream world of 14 April 1905, where the tiniest kick of dust can cause someone not to be born. In other worlds, such as 11 June 1905, people are bound only to the present, which shapes their expectations about the future. In yet other worlds like 22 May 1905, the ability to glimpse the future changes people's decisions in the present. Woven throughout these possibilities is anxiety about the potential of free will versus fate and how those concepts can keep time static or malleable.

In Einstein's Dreams how does Lightman contrast the predictability of time with the predictability of people?

In the novel both time and people exist on a continuum of predictable to unpredictable, and time always influences people in this regard. In some dream worlds time can be "sticky" or unpredictable, such as when people become stuck in the past or when cause has no correlative effect in the future. In other dream worlds time is rigid and absolute, inspiring a near-religious degree of worship and respect in people who are both reassured and trapped by its predictability. People's responses to their world's time structure also occur on a spectrum of predictability. Some respond to time by resisting it; others embrace it. Essentially Lightman implies people's responses to their lives are shaped by their perceptions about the predictability of time.

Why does the narrator use words such as rigid, bonelike, and fossilizing to describe time's effects in 22 June 1905 of Einstein's Dreams?

Lightman takes great care to use sensory descriptions and verbs to differentiate time's behaviors and effects in each of the novel's dream worlds. In the world of 22 June 1905, the future is fixed, indifferent, and mechanical. To portray the effect of time on this world's inhabitants, Lightman uses language that gives it a texture. Describing time as "rigid" helps the reader picture its unyielding quality. "Bonelike" and "fossilizing" further extend the comparison of time to something that calcifies and hardens, making it impossible to alter the past or future. This language emphasizes how completely determined and fixed time is in this world and what effect this rigidity has on people.

What correlations does Lightman make in Einstein's Dreams among time, happiness, and misery?

Throughout the dream world vignettes of the novel, Lightman shows over and over how people's reactions to their perception of time shapes their sense of happiness or misery. There is rarely one prescribed way that humanity in these worlds responds to the constraints of time that they live in, and so Lightman gives the reader a constant set of paradoxes. In a world where time is infinite, the sense of immortality leads some to become so miserable that they yearn for death, while others find their immortality liberating. In another dream world the belief that time can be extended based on altitude leads ultimately to unhappiness over the quality of the lives they must live. Lightman also correlates a sense of free will to the degree of happiness people seem to feel—the more control they feel they have over their lives, the happier they seem to be. Lightman infers that this self-perception of one's relationship to time seems to be key.

What does Lightman imply about individual responsibility in Einstein's Dreams?

Throughout the novel Lightman connects individual responsibility to the perception of free will. This connection also correlates to individuals' perception of time. In a dream world like the one of 19 April 1905, time has three dimensions, meaning the future can move in infinite directions. The narrator notes, "Some make light of decisions, arguing that all possible decisions will occur. In such a world, how could one be responsible for his actions? Others hold that each decision must be considered and committed to, that without commitment there is chaos." The implication of individual responsibility in a world with infinite futures is a paradox: one either has no responsibility or must take full responsibility. Lightman indicates both interpretations have merit in this kind of world.

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