Reaction To “Einstein’s Dreams” By Alan Lightman

The chapter from the novel Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman presents a short story set in a world that has rejected all watches and clocks. When the first mechanical clock was built, the invention amazed and frightened people. Filled with mixed feelings, society decided to replace the device that quantified the passage of time with the Great Clock. Accordingly, the story proposes that the Great Clock is now located in the Temple of Time, a cathedral in the center of Rome that attracts many pilgrims who come to bow to the construction. The Great Clock is a massive bronze pendulum with twelve people standing in a circle, chanting, and each representing an hour mark. Lightman’s narrative portrays people’s relationship with time and how the latter directs society.

Lightman’s short story seems to explore different themes, such as a circle of life, fate, the power of science, and several others, but it appears that they are all united under one concept of freedom. The narrative suggests that the Great Clock has not changed how people spend their days, except that all individuals are no longer free. Horrified by the first mechanical clock, society decided to entrust its life to the Great Clock and is now trapped. The main theme represented by the story is free will because people choose to be controlled by one massive structure instead of each having smaller devices and being responsible for their own time and determinations.

My reaction to Lightman’s story is that the portrayal of the measurement of time has some similarities with the real history of the mechanical clock. Volti et al. (2004) state that the invention has caused changes in social and intellectual perspectives, indicating the regimentation of society and a need for a divine clockmaker. Accordingly, Lightman’s narrative describes how people chose to worship the mechanical clock and that the creation of the Great Clock led to modifications among the public. In the story, the clock changed life by taking away people’s liberty and making them generate a regime glorifying the construction of the Temple of Time. A parallel I see with our lives is how modern society sometimes does not like to be responsible for its own decisions and gives away accountability and power. However, there is nothing unnatural with how people measure time and live by the clock because contemporary devices seem logical, and their usage offers a sense of control.


Volti, R. R., Harms, A. A., & Baetz, B. W. (2004). Engineering in time: The systematics of engineering history and its contemporary context. Imperial College Press.