Alan Lightman’s decision to turn his talent toward fiction after a career marked by non-fiction examinations of physics and astronomy is probably itself worthy of a non-fiction tale. While staying firmly within his area of comfort within the arcane field of the most arcane of scientific subjects, he certainly shot for the moon in how he decided to incorporate his vast technical knowledge into the world of dramatic interpretation. Published in 1993, Einstein’s Dreams endeavors to fulfill the challenge of turning Albert Einstein’s formulation of the theory of relativity into accessible entertainment for readers of popular fiction.
The novel is set in the period leading up to Einstein’s great breakthrough in 1905; along the way, the reader is introduced to the scientist’s engineer friend Michelle Besso. As the title indicates, however, the real focus of Lightman’s take on this historical turning point is seemingly quite far away from the facts and mathematical equations that drive his non-fiction. The highlight of Einstein’s Dreams is, in fact, Lightman’s entry into the unconscious mind of Einstein and the imagery produced there during slumber. While the ambiguous vagaries of the dream state indeed seem antithetical to the scientific theory’s pursuit of reproducible results pointing to a single logical conclusion, those dreams are, in fact, a nearly perfect literary metaphor for the revolutionary concepts regarding the bizarre potential existing with Einstein’s theories on the relationship between time and space.
The highly visual nature of the novel, with its focus on dream imagery, has given rise to a number of multimedia adaptations. Musical compositions inspired by Lightman’s novel include “In This World” by Paul Hoffman and “When Einstein Dreams” by Nando Michelin. The National Pastime Theater in Chicago mounted a stage production in 2000 while the Paradise Theater in New York produce an entirely separate adaptation just one year later. In addition to number of other stage productions, Lorraine Whittesley’s music and lyrics transformed Einstein’s Dreams into a choral performance in Baltimore in 2006.
As for the original prose source of those adaptations, it was received warmly by both critics and readers. In addition to carving out a spot on the New York Times Bestseller List, Einstein’s Dreams also found its way into college and high school curricula in both literature and science courses.