“Einstein’s Dreams” by Alan Lightman (Warner Books, $14.95, 144 pages, Paperback) & “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics” by Carlo Rovelli, translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre (Riverhead Books, $18, 96 pages)
By Harvey Freedenberg
It takes a highly skilled writer to render an abstruse subject, like quantum physics, in accessible, almost poetic, prose. That talent is shared by the two writers – Alan Lightman and Carlo Rovelli – whose delightful books, Einstein’s Dreams and Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, I’m reviewing this month. Written nearly a quarter century apart, these slim volumes feel like at least fraternal twins in both substance and spirit.
Lightman is a physicist, novelist, essayist and Professor of the Practice of Humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was the first MIT professor to receive a joint appointment in the sciences and the humanities; the ability to straddle those disciplines is a major part of the appeal of his novel, Einstein’s Dreams.
In this collection of compact vignettes, Lightman conjures up the dreams of a 26-year-old patent clerk named Albert Einstein in Berne, Switzerland between April and June 1905. What distinguishes this intellectually restless young man from his colleagues is that he’s on the verge of completing his theory of special relativity.
Each dream succinctly captures a different notion of time. Imagine, for example, a world in which “cause and effect are erratic,” where scientists flounder: “Their predictions become ‘postdictions.’ Their equations become justifications, their logic, illogic. …Scientists are buffoons, not because they are rational but because the cosmos is irrational.”
In other scenarios, time flows backward or stands still, or people live in a world of a shifting past, where “memories are wheat in wind, fleeting dreams, shapes in clouds.” What’s consistent throughout is the lyricism of Lightman’s prose, as in this description of a world in which people live an entire lifetime in a single day: “Time is too precious. A life is a moment in season. A life is one snowfall. A life is one autumn day. A life is the delicate, rapid edge of a closing door’s shadow. A life is a brief movement of arms and legs.”
No doubt you will find some of these vivid visions more appealing or disturbing than others. No matter, because once you’ve read Einstein’s Dreams, you’ll never think of time in quite the same way again.
Carlo Rovelli is one of the founders of the loop quantum gravity theory and heads the Quantum Gravity group at the Centre de Physique Théorique of Aix-Marseille University. His book began as a series of articles published in the Sunday supplement of an Italian newspaper. The seven concise chapters that cover Einstein’s general theory of relativity, quantum mechanics, the architecture of the cosmos, elementary particles, quantum gravity, probability and the heat of black holes and, finally, humanity’s place in the universe, don’t seem to be the stuff one would consume with a Sunday morning bagel and coffee, but in Rovelli’s capable hands, these concepts become objects of elegant simplicity and striking beauty.
In each bite-sized chapter, Rovelli displays his gift for the arresting metaphor that makes an esoteric concept accessible, if in an occasionally oversimplified fashion, to the general reader. Thus, in the world described in Einstein’s theory, “We are not contained within an invisible rigid infrastructure: we are immersed in a gigantic, flexible snail shell.” The electrons, quarks, photons, and gluons that are the “elementary particles” studied in particle physics comprise a world that is a “continuous, restless swarming of things, a continuous coming to light and disappearance of ephemeral entities,” vibrating like the “switched-on hippie world of the 1960s.”
One of the other charms of Rovelli’s book is its essential humanity. Describing Einstein’s general theory of relativity (one of those “absolute masterpieces that move us intensely: Mozart’s Requiem, Homer’s Odyssey, the Sistine Chapel, King Lear”), he recalls how he began to grasp its beauty during the summer he spent on the beach in Calabria during his final year as a university student, when he devoured a book whose edges had been gnawed by mice whose holes he’d used to block it.
Rovelli ends his work on a somber note, in a chapter entitled “Ourselves.” In it, he poses the question: “What role do we have as human beings who perceive, make decisions, laugh, and cry, in this great fresco of the world as depicted by contemporary physics?” His disquieting conclusion is that “our species will not last long,” largely because the “brutal climate and environmental changes that we have triggered are unlikely to spare us.” One can only hope he someday will expound at greater length on the reasons for his pessimism.
According to Rovelli, he’s aiming to enlighten those “who know little or nothing about modern science.” That easily could be said of Lightman’s book as well. The truth is that even those who fall squarely in that category likely will hunger for a deeper engagement with this subject matter after they’ve read these two charming books.
Email Harvey Freedenberg at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @HarvF.