Photo: left, Dr. Alan Lightman, right Randall Williams
Article by Lisa Purchase Kelly

People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.—Albert Einstein

The only reason for time is so that everything doesn't happen at once.—Albert Einstein


A book about time. Einstein's Dreams was written by that rarest of breeds, the scientist/poet Dr.Alan Lightman. A science geek who grew up listening to Bob Dylan's music, he began publishing poetry while working as a postdoctoral fellow in astrophysics at Cornell, and published Einstein's Dreams, his first novel, in 1993. In addition to his list of scientific achievements (which reads like something Sheldon Cooper would spew out in a breathless rant) and his teaching position at MIT, Lightman co-founded a Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT, and founded a Kennedy Center Award given to the best play involving science written by a college student. He also founded the Harpswell Foundation, and in 2008 the government of Cambodia awarded him the Gold Medal for humanitarian service for his work through the Foundation. He is now the author of five novels and a book of poetry (as well as several essays and fables, and seven books on science). 

Although writing as a scientist, Lightman tends to focus on the human side of science, the "mind of science":

"I have always been interested in both science and the humanities, especially writing and literature. . . .It has not been easy to pursue both of these directions, and for a long time I put my literary interests on the back burner. In the early 1980s, I began writing essays on science. This versatile form of writing was a good bridge connecting my two halves. My early role models in science were Lewis Thomas and Stephen Jay Gould, and I also read every essay written by the master, E.B. White. Other science and naturalist writers that I read and admired include John McPhee, Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez, David Quammen, James Gleick, and Richard Preston. . . . I especially like [fiction] writers whose writing distorts reality in order to see reality more clearly. I also admire writers whose writing is not only beautiful but also crosses cultures, conveying a foreign world and its mentality. I hope in my writing to convey the culture of science, which is as foreign to most readers as India is to an American."—author Alan Lightman, as quoted in Contemporary Authors Online

Einstein's Dreams turns time on its ear, makes a toy of physics, much as Einstein himself might have been prone to do. It elevates the ideas of physics to something much more human than the litany of formulas and equations that are so foreign to many of us. The book's author, Dr. Alan Lightman, set the story on thirty specific dates in 1905, Einstein's "annus mirabilis"– the year of miracles, during which he published four of his groundbreaking papers (including his special theory of relativity) that altered the world of physics. The patent clerk's musings at his empty office in Bern and his routine ramblings about the town with his friend Michael Besso serve as the minimal framework of the story.

The magical metaphysical heart of the story takes the form of thirty "dreams," each presenting a new "what-if" for our concept of time. What if Einstein's theory of relativity were applied very literally and concretely to a specific place on earth (like a fountain in a town square)? Like moving into a black hole, time would slow down and almost stop as people moved closer to the center … lovers would crowd there to preserve their passionate embrace, parents would hold onto their children there to preserve their childhood indefinitely, "like a butterfly mounted in a case." Who would make pilgrimage to such a place? Who would decide to forsake Forever and move away?

What if the "many worlds" interpretation of quantum physics were applied to our world? Each decision, each crossroad would split into three separate realities, alternate universes in which every possibility is played out. A man wonders whether to visit a certain young woman. He does not: he goes on with his life and later meets another young woman with whom he settles down and is perfectly content. He does: they fall passionately in love and have a tempestuous relationship. He does: they chat pleasantly for an afternoon, have tea together and talk about their jobs, and part ways, having made no real connection. In this world of infinite realities are decisions meaningless? Or are decisions the most important thing, perhaps being what drives time and reality forward?

In each fantastical scenario, Lightman makes only a cursory sketch of the altered-time environment, and then weaves that world into the ordinary lives of people like ourselves. It is Time viewed through the prism of people's lives, not through theories and numbers. The story is found in the emotions and behavior and rearranged priorities of these ordinary people. If you could stop time, would you? Should you? If the world were ending next month, how would society change? If you could see the future, how would it affect your decisions and values? Lightman's worlds are boldly populated with our alter-egos living out the potential answers to these questions.


Perhaps the name Randall Williams carries creative notoriety and a wandering spirit with it … the Einsteins' Dreams lyricist shares a name with Randall Williams, "The King of Showmen," a traveling showman famous in the late 1800s; and with Randall Hank Williams, better known as Hank Williams, Jr. Since graduating at the top of his class at the Royal Conservatory of Mons (Belgium) and leaving the world of classical music behind to pursue the more inclusive genre of folk music, Williams has joined the ranks of his roaming namesakes and has wandered the earth collecting music and stories. He has lived alone aboard a 20 foot sailboat in the Baltic and North seas, hitchhiked across the Sahara, and has performed his songs in a dozen languages in more than thirty-five countries. 

In 2005 he returned to the United States "to scrounge up a career as a performing songwriter, hoping it wasn't too late." A virtuoso with the capo on guitar, he has had great success criss-crossing the country as a songwriter, instructor, and recording artist, publishing books, garnering awards, and racking up frequent-flyer miles along the way.

"Songs, like poetry, paintings, sermons, and dance, happen because they have to. Emotions pile up until they've reached a critical mass, then they come out to greet the world like a new butterfly, or like hot magma, or something in between. The bottom line: we do it because we have to. When the Russian military opened up the sunken submarine Kursk in October 2000, they found a letter that Lieut. Capt. Dimitri Kolesnikov had scribbled in the dark—"I am writing blindly"—as the icy water began to flood the compartment where he was trapped. He used the last moments of his life to communicate to his wife. I was a fledgling guitar player when I began writing songs—did it for the same reason Dimitri wrote that letter—because I had to. I wrote about what I felt most strongly. The breakup songs were the easiest, the social commentary songs, the stories, all that comes out too."—Randall Williams, as quoted on ReverbNation

Randall Williams was given a copy of Einstein's Dreams ten years ago and fell in love with Dr. Lightman's characters, their humanity expressed in "simple prose that is pure poetry." He passed it along to friends. He stumbled across the book again recently at the Montague Book Mill in Massachusetts ("Books nobody needs in a place no one can find"). He paid $2.50 for a used copy and devoured it again, slowly savoring each chapter.

Around this time he traveled to Bay City to collaborate with Leo Najar and the Bijou Orchestra for a Fourth of July concert. In the concert post-mortem Williams and Najar began discussing possibilities for future collaboration. Since Williams travels so much, Najar proposed a song cycle with a road-trip theme. Williams countered with the idea to do a song cycle based on the book that had held his attention for so long—Einstein's Dreams.

[Continued in Einstein's Dreams, a World Premiere Pt. 2]

© Lisa Purchase Kelly, 2011