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Writer and physicist Alan Lightman finds room for science and spirituality

An interview with the MIT Astrophysicist and novelist at this year's Boston Book Festival, including excerpts and a link to the full interview. 

Greg Fitzgrald
Writer Alan Lightman with Science editor, Noelle Swan and science writer, Eoin O'Carroll

He’s a scientist who works on deeply complicated theories of astrophysics and extreme temperatures. He’s a novelist whose writing has been called “intellectually provocative” by Salman Rushdie. He’s an essayist whose new book proposes a truce between science and religion.

Alan Lightman and his "Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine” were the focus at a standing-room-only Monitor-sponsored event at the Boston Book Festival this month. The full hour of dialog from that program is available as audio here.

The Monitor’s science editor, Noelle Swan, along with science writer, Eoin O’Carroll, spent an engaging hour with Dr. Lightman, mixing their own questions with those from our subscribers and the live festival audience. We've selected a handful of excerpts from our conversation with Lightman below.

Lightman, who worked for many years as a theoretical physicist, is the author of six novels, including the international best seller "Einstein’s Dreams," as well as "The Diagnosis," a finalist for the National Book Award. He is also the author of a memoir and three collections of essays. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Harper’s Magazine, The New Yorker, and Nature.

As he writes in his book, the MIT physicist experienced an epiphany just off the coast of a tiny island where he spends his summers in Maine.

“I lay down in the boat and looked up. A very dark night sky seen from the ocean is a mystical experience. After a few minutes, my world had dissolved into that star-littered sky. The boat disappeared. My body disappeared. And I found myself falling into infinity.... I felt an overwhelming connection to the stars, as if I were part of them.... I felt connected not only to the stars but to all of nature, and to the entire cosmos. I felt a merging with something far larger than myself, a grand and eternal unity a hint of something absolute.”
– From “Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine”, published by Pantheon

Below is a sampling of the questions posed to Lightman during the event. His answers have been edited for clarity.

How did this experience carry over into other parts of your life and the way you view the world?

I think the experience affects me as as a human being, though not necessarily as as a scientist. But I think that that we are capable of both science and art. We do experiments and we also experience the world and as a human being. I want to be open to these kinds of experiences even if I can't quantify them. When I had that experience in the boat looking up at the sky, you could have connected every one of my 100 billion neurons to a computer and write out the electrical impulse from all of them. And you still would not have been able to understand the experience, this feeling of being connected to something larger than myself. But, paradoxically, I remain a materialist. I remain committed to the material world. So it's this tension between the material and the immaterial that is that part of my life – and I imagine many of yours. It fuels my creativity and my excitement about being alive in the world.

How did the passing of time between your 1982 Novel “Einstein’s Dreams” and your 2018 “Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine” affect your writing?

Well I think of “Einstein's Dreams” as as a book about the creative process and science. And the flight of the imagination. I wrote the book when I was in my late thirties. I could not have written “Searching for Stars on an island in Maine” at that phase of my life. I needed to live a lot longer and experience more and understand more about what was meaningful to me. So in terms of what was the evolution, it is simply that I lived longer. I think the longer that you live, the more questions you have about the world. It's a product of maturation, of what has meaning for yourself and your society. And I don't think that many 20-year-olds ask questions like that. As we get older we begin wondering what it all means and thinking about the bad turns we've taken in life and so on. So it's a book that represents more maturity.

In your book you suggest a way of proposing a peace between science and religion. If something happens in the physical universe then it must have a physical explanation but you’re also saying that doesn't preclude the possibility of believing in non-physical entities.

Well I think that all statements about the physical universe, even statements in the sacred books or statements by religious institutions, have to be subject to analysis by science and have to be subject to experimental tests and rejected if found to disagree with evidence. And I think the physical world is the province of science, whereas everything else – and I do think there is something else – is the province of spirituality or religion and for me spirituality is a very personal experience. I'm not talking about organized religion but I'm talking about this very vital immediate feeling of being connected to something larger than ourselves, as I described in that short reading I gave. And no one can deny the validity of a transcendent experience that you've had. The authority of that experience rests in the experience itself, whereas in the physical world and the world of science phenomena have to be tested and repeated and reproduced in many different laboratories before they are accepted.

What do you feel the humanities have to offer people who want to think deep thoughts such as yourself?

I think everybody agrees that the humanities are extremely important to being a human being and providing values. Science and technology do not have values on their own. It's we human beings that give them values and we need the humanities to help guide us to offer those values. I do know that that many universities are creating interdisciplinary programs so that that the sciences and humanities can talk to each other, and that's that's very important. I think they should still remain distinct disciplines because you learn different kinds of tools and ways of thinking in the sciences and the humanities. But I do think that the interdisciplinary efforts are very, very worthwhile and help counterbalance the trend of specialization that's been going on in academia for the last 500 years.

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