Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman is a surrealist fictional collage of stories about his character ‘Einstein’ dreams. The book captures the effect a concept could have on our sub-conscious through mind-bending narration. The realm of the subconscious is a place where everything is possible. A dream is a story about those impossibilities coming together to shape the theory in the waking hours of a thinker.

The realm of the subconscious is a place where everything is possible. A dream is nothing but a story about those interactions between possibilities and impossibilities coming together to shape the theory in the waking hours of a thinker.

Even though dreams shape a theory in our subconscious, dreams are shaped by the people, objects, imagery, experiences, agendas, and activities of the waking hours in the conscious state. Alan Lightman’s character ‘Einstein’ is based on the most revered scientist and thinkers of our times- Albert Einstein. In the prologue, to his book, Alan paints a vivid image with his words, the phase in the life of Albert Einstein when he had to work as a patent clerk to make ends meet. The following premise will be a link in between the dream states throughout the book.

#1. The Clock Tower

“In some distant arcade, a clock tower calls out six times and then stops. The young man slumps at his desk. He has come to the office at dawn, after another upheaval. His hair is uncombed and his trousers are too big. In his hand, he holds twenty crumpled pages, his new theory of time, which he will mail today to the German journal of physics. 


#2. The Sounds from the City

Tiny sounds from the city drift through the room. A milk bottle clinks on a stone. an awning is cranked in a shop on Marktgasse. A vegetable cart moves slowly through a street. A man and woman talk in hushed tones in an apartment nearby. In the dim light that seeps through the room, the desks appear shadowy and soft, like large sleeping animals. 

#3. The Patent Clerks Desk, Office and Life

Except for the young man’s desk, which is cluttered with half-opened books, the twelve oak desks are all neatly covered with documents, left from the previous day. Upon arriving in two hours, each clerk will know precisely where to begin. But at this moment, in this dim light, the documents on the desks are no more visible than the clock in the corner or the secretary’s stool near the door. All that can be seen at this moment are the shadowy shapes of the young man.” 

Ten minutes past six, by the invisible clock on the wall. Minute by minute, new objects gain form. Here, a brass wastebasket appears. There, a calendar on the wall. Here, a family photograph, a box of paper clips, an inkwell, a pen. There a typewriter, a jacket folded on a chair. In time, the ubiquitous bookshelves emerge from the night mist that hangs on the walls. The bookshelves hold notebooks of patents. One patent concerns a new drilling gear with teeth curved in a pattern to minimize friction. Another proposes an electrical transformer that holds constant voltage when the power supply varies. Another describes a type-writer with a low-velocity typebar that eliminates noise. It is a room full of Practical ideas. 

#4. The landscape

Outside, the tops of the Alps start to glow from the sun. It’s late June. A boatman on the Aare unites his small skiff and pushes off, letting the current take him along Aarstasse to Gerbengasse, where he will deliver his summer apples and berries.

#5. The marketplace

The baker arrives at his store on Marktgrasse, fires his coal ove, begins mixing flour and yeast. Two lovers embrace on the Nydegg Bridge, gaze wistfully into the river below. A man stands on his balcony on Schifflaube, studies the pink sky. A woman who cannot sleep walks slowly down Kramgasse, peering into each dark arcade, reading the posters in half-light.

Even When Albert Einstein was working as a patent clerk, he had gained much respect amongst his friends. One such friend was Michele Besso.

Besso was a very close friend of Albert Einstein’s. Albert Einstein helped Besso find a job at the patent clerks office and strange enough they passed away less than two months of each other, Besso moving away before.

Albert Einstein even credited Besso as the best sounding board in all of Europe for scientific ideas. Such friendships shape our goals and the manner in which we achieve them. If we just find a Besso we could all be an Einstein, in our fields, that is the hope.


Interludes: Meetings with Besso

“Einstein has been explaining to his friend Besso why he wants to know time.


Einstein leans over to Besso, who is also short, and says, “I want to understand time because I want to get close to The Old One.” Besso nods in accord. But there are problems, which Besso points out. For one, perhaps The Old One is not interested in getting close to his creations, intelligent or not. For another, it is not obvious that knowledge is closeness. For yet another, this time project could be too big for a twenty-six-year-old. On the other hand, Besso thinks that his friend might be capable of anything. Already this year, Einstein has completed his Ph.D. thesis, finished one paper on photons and another on Brownian motion. The current project actually began as an investigation of electricity and magnetism, which, Einstein suddenly announced one day, would require a reconception of time. Besso is dazzled by Einstein’s ambition.


“What shapes do you see in the clouds, Michele?” asks Einstein. “I see a goat chasing a man who is frowning.” “You are a practical man, Michele.” Einstein gazes at the clouds but is thinking of his project. He wants to tell Besso about his dreams, but he cannot bring himself to do it. “I think you will succeed with your theory of time,” says Besso. “And when you do, we will go fishing and you will explain it to me. When you become famous, you’ll remember that you told me first, here in this boat.” Einstein laughs, and the clouds rock back and forth with his laughter.”



Physicists have pursued dissecting the universe/our world into small pieces. They study these pieces. They pick a piece and try to figure out its basic nature, the purpose of its existence and how does it fit in with the other pieces in the final jigsaw puzzle.

One such piece is ‘Time’.

‘Time’ is relative, this notion has gripped Einstein’s entire mind in all its states. So much so that, he begins dreaming about it.

Radically extreme for the early 1900’s a mind-boggling prediction was made by Albert Einstein’s “time is relative to each one of us”.

The dream scenarios are a capturing of Albert Einstein’s mulling over about the ‘What if’s’ of the nature and flow of time, while he was working on his theory of General Relativity. In reality, the flow of time is linear. It only moves in one direction-forwards.

Einstein’s dreams present the prediction ‘Time is Relative’, by subjecting different flows of time relative to each dream scenario.  Vivid dreams, paint an illusion that time takes different aspects, unlike the way we experience it relative to our daily experiences and in fact absorbs different aspects and is not exact in it nature, far different and ever changing our linear experience of it.

Dreamworlds or as Einstein believes Realities, from the book, are, as we may have imagined as children, even when we hoped we could magically control the flow of time to suit our fancy.

#8. Time is a Circle

Suppose time is a circle, bending back on itself. The world repeats itself, precisely, endlessly.


 #9. Time is like Water

“In this world, time is like the flow of water, occasionally displaced by a bit of debris, a passing breeze. Now and then, some cosmic disturbance will cause a rivulet of time to turn away from the mainstream, to make a connection backstream. When this happens, birds, soil, people caught in a branching tributary find themselves suddenly carried to the past.


#8. Time has 3 Dimensions

For in this world, time has three dimensions, like space. Just as an object may move in three perpendicular directions, corresponding to horizontal, vertical and longitudinal, so an object may participate in three perpendicular futures.”


#9. Time slows down away from earth

In this world, it is instantly obvious that something is odd. No houses can be seen in the valleys or plains. Everyone lives in the mountains. At some time in the past, scientists discovered that time flows more slowly the father from the center of earthEinstein's Dream- Illustration Illustration by: Ana Maria Hermida

Source: I Am Red Ham – Artwork for ‘Einstein’s Dreams’


#10. Different street Different Times

On closer look, it is a town in many pieces. One neighborhood lives in the fifteenth century. Another section of the village is a picture of the eighteenth century. Another section holds the present, with arcades lining every avenue, metal railings on the balconies, facades made of smooth sandstone. Each section of the village is fastened to a different time zone.”


#11. Time Stands Still

There is a place where time stands still. Raindrops hang motionless in the air. Pendulum of clocks float mid-swing. Dogs raise their muzzles in silent howls. Pedestrians are frozen on the dusty streets, their legs cocked as if held by strings. The aromas of dates, mangoes coriander, cumin are suspended in space.


#12. Time Captured

Imagine a world in which there is no time. Only images.”


#13. More Speed More Time

Why such fixation on speed? Because in this world time passes more slowly for people in motion. Thus everyone travels at high velocity, to gain time.” 


#14. A ‘For 24 hrs only’ Lifespan

Imagine a world in which people live just one day. either the rate of heartbeats and breathing is speeded up so that an entire lifetime is compressed to the space of one turn of the earth on its axis— or rotation of the earth is slowed to such a low gear that one complete revolution occupies a whole human lifetime. Either interpretation is valid. In either case, a man or woman sees one sunrise, one sunset.


#15. Time can’t be measured

Suppose that time is not a quantity but a quality, like the luminescence of the night above the trees just when a rising moon has touched the tree line. Time exists, but it cannot be measured.


#16. Time has No Future

In fact, this is a world without future. In this world, time is a line that terminates at the present, both in reality and in the mind. In this world, no person can imagine the future. Imagining the future is no more possible than seeing colours beyond violet: the senses cannot conceive what may lie past the visible end of the spectrum.


#17. Distance Seperates Time

In this world, time is a local phenomenon. Two clocks close together tick at nearly the same are. But clocks separated by distance tick at different rates, the farther apart the more out of step.”


#18. Time is a Countless Copy of Itself

For time is like the light between two mirrors. Time bounces back and forth, producing an infinite number if images, of melodies, of thoughts. It is a world of countless copies.”


#19. Time is shifting… in The Past

But what is the past? could it be, the firmness of the past is just an illusion? Could the past be a kaleidoscope, a pattern of images that shift with each disturbance of a sudden breeze, a laugh, a thought? And if the shift is everywhere, how would we know?

In a world of shifting past,...”


#20. Time is a Nigtingale

Because this flock of nightingales is time. Time flutters and fidgets and hops with these birds. Trap one of these nightingales beneath a bell jar and time stops. The moment is frozen for all people and trees and soil caught within.


Einsteins Dreams Cover
Einstein’s Dreams- Alan Lightman (Vintage Collection) Amazon.in

A truly gripping novel, hard to put away, by a theoretical physicist himself, Alan Lightman, takes you on a subconscious carousel of metaphysics, in his International Bestseller, ‘Einsteins Dreams‘.

The 20 surreal dream scenarios selected for this article come from the imaginations of the author Alan Lightman from his book ‘Einstein’s Dreams‘. The book is about a fictional Einstein and the narration of his dreams that have come about as a residue of his contemplation of the nature of ‘Time’ in conversation with his best friend Besso.

Besso who is also based on a real person and in fact was Albert Einstein’s best friend and sounding board as he worked on his theory of relativity. Another important duo of men which includes Albert Einstein one of its counterparts, who came together in a close friendship while dealing with the personal aspects of life and developing professional foundations.

Albert Einstein called him “The best sounding board in Europe for Scientific Ideas”. More about their friendship on Christie’s article: (Time’s arrow: Albert Einstein’s letters to Michele Besso).

Read more about the Solar Eclipse of 1919 that permanently sealed the dynamic duo of Einstein and Eddington in cosmology history. and