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
IT BEGAN WITH A BOOK
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.
NOW SET THAT TO MUSIC
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