Theoretical Physicist and Novelist
After serving on the faculty of Harvard for a dozen years, Alan Lightman moved to MIT, where he became the first person to receive a dual faculty appointment in the sciences and the humanities. His short story, “The Second Law of Thermodynamics,” was the first fiction published by the physics journal Physics Today, and his essay “In the Name of Love” was the first essay on that subject in the prestigious international science journal Nature. Elsewhere, his essays on science and the human condition have been published in The Atlantic, Harper’s, The New Yorker, Tin House, The New York Times, and many other places. Lightman’s recent collection of essays, The Accidental Universe, was selected by BrainPickings as one of the ten best books of the year, and the title essay of that book was chosen by The New York Times as one of the best essays of the year in any category. Lightman’s novel The Diagnosis, about the American obsession with information, speed, and money, was a finalist for the National Book Award in fiction. His recent novel Mr g, the story of Creation as narrated by God, blends science and religion and has been the subject of various print and radio commentaries. Dozens of independent theatrical and musical productions worldwide have been adapted from Lightman’s novel Einstein’s Dreams. An international bestseller, this book is one of the most widely used texts in universities today and has been translated into 30 languages. Lightman has often been a guest on NPR and other radio programs.
In astrophysics, Lightman has made fundamental contributions to our understanding of black holes, radiation processes at the centers of galaxies, and the foundations of Einstein’s theory of gravity. He is a past chair of the high-energy division of the American Astronomical Society and an elected fellow of the American Physical Society as well as the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. At MIT, he has been the John Burchard Professor of Humanities and Senior Lecturer in physics and is currently Professor of the Practice of the Humanities. He founded the MIT graduate program in science writing and has received four honorary doctoral degrees. He also received the Andrew Gemant Award of the American Institute of Physics for linking science and the humanities, the John P. MGovern Science and Society award of the international science society Sigma Xi, and the Distinguished Alumni Award of the California Institute of Technology.
The Accidental Universe
In this talk, based on his book The Accidental Universe (named one of the 10 best science books of 2014 by Brainpickings), Alan Lightman discusses the recent findings by astronomers and physicists that our universe may be an “accident,” just one of trillions of other universes with vastly different properties from our own. Some, for example, with 17 dimensions, some without planets or stars, many of which completely lack the existence of any kind of life. Lightman explores the philosophical and theological implications of these unisverses, and discusses the profound mismatch between our desire for permanence and immortality and the evidence in nature that all things are impermanent—even the stars.
Albert Einstein and Relativity
In this lecture, Alan Lightman discusses the life of Albert Einstein, using some of the personal letters Einstein himself wrote, and then presents the theory of relativity in layman’s terms, with colorful illustrations. This talk draws on the many articles Lightman has published about Einstein and his work.
Surviving in the Wired World
In this lecture, Alan Lightman discusses the way in which much of modern technology has created a virtual reality that has robbed us of immediate experience with the world and has also contributed to an increasing pace of life that prevents us from much-needed personal reflection. Lightman does not view technology as having intrinsic values: it’s how we human beings use technology—at the level of the individual—that gives it values, good and bad. He discusses ways to adapt to our technological society while preserving our humanity. This talk draws from Lightman’s published articles on technology and also from his novel The Diagnosis, which was a finalist for the National Book Award.
The Physicist as Novelist
In this lecture, Alan Lightman draws on his unique personal experience as both a physicist and a novelist to discuss the similarities and differences in the way that the sciences and the arts approach the world, their different conceptions of truth, their different methodologies, and the similarities in their creative process. For example, all questions in science have definite answers, while questions in the arts (and often the humanities) do not have definite answers—and sometimes no answer at all.
Science and Religion
In this lecture, Alan Lightman first surveys some high points in the history of science that bear upon philosophical, theological, and ethical issues. The general trend of science over the centuries has been to enlarge the domain of what we call the “physical universe,” and to develop a purely material and rational explanation for the phenomena of the physical universe. Lightman then turns to religion and discusses the kinds of questions that intersect both religion and science, versus the kinds of questions that lie firmly in one domain or the other. He discusses the form of religious beliefs that is compatible with science, and the fact that science and religion have different kinds of knowledge and different methods of obtaining that knowledge. Finally, Lightman discusses his view that, in a sense that he defines, a “spiritual universe” exists in addition to the physical universe, although the former does not necessarily include what we call God. This talk draws from some of the essays in Lightman’s recent book The Accidental Universe.
The Great Discoveries of Science
Drawing on his studies of important 20th-century discoveries in physics, biology, and chemistry—published in his book The Discoveries—Lightman describes some of the great scientific achievements and the men and women behind them. Is there a common scientific personality? Is there a common background of great scientists? He also describes the creative process in science and looks for patterns of creativity and discovery revealed in his study.
Screening Room: Family Pictures
From the acclaimed author of the international bestseller Einstein’s Dreams, here is a stunning, lyrical memoir of Memphis from the 1930s through the 1960s that includes the early days of the movies and a powerful grandfather whose ghost remains an ever-present force in the lives of his descendants.
Alan Lightman’s grandfather M.A. Lightman was the family’s undisputed patriarch: it was his movie theater empire that catapulted the Lightmans to prominence in the South, his fearless success that both galvanized and paralyzed his children and grandchildren. In this moving, impressionistic memoir, the author chronicles his return to Memphis in an attempt to understand the origins he so eagerly left behind forty years earlier. As aging uncles and aunts begin telling family stories, Lightman rediscovers his southern roots and slowly recognizes the errors in his perceptions of both his grandfather and his father, who was himself crushed by M.A. The result is an unforgettable family saga that extends from 1880 to the present, set against a throbbing century of Memphis—the rhythm and blues, the barbecue and pecan pie, the segregated society—and including personal encounters with Elvis, Martin Luther King Jr., and E. H. “Boss” Crump. At the heart of it all is a family haunted by the memory of its domineering patriarch and the author’s struggle to understand his conflicted loyalties.
The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew
Alan Lightman brings a light touch to heavy questions. Here is a book about nesting ospreys, multiple universes, atheism, spiritualism, and the arrow of time. Throughout, Lightman takes us back and forth between ordinary occurrences—old shoes and entropy, sailing far out at sea and the infinite expanse of space.
"As I remember, I had just woken up from a nap when I decided to create the universe." So begins Alan Lightman's playful and profound new novel, Mr g, the story of Creation as told by God. Barraged by the constant advisements and bickerings of Aunt Penelope and Uncle Deva, who live with their nephew in the shimmering Void, Mr g proceeds to create time, space, and matter. Then come stars, planets, animate matter, consciousness, and, finally, intelligent beings with moral dilemmas. Mr g is all powerful but not all knowing and does much of his invention by trial and error.
Even the best-laid plans can go awry, and Mr g discovers that with his creation of space and time come some unforeseen consequences-- especially in the form of the mysterious Belhor, a clever and devious rival. An intellectual equal to Mr g, Belhor delights in provoking him: Belhor demands an explanation for the inexplicable, requests that the newly created intelligent creatures not be subject to rational laws, and maintains the necessity of evil. As Mr g watches his favorite universe grow into maturity, he begins to understand how the act of creation can change himself, the Creator. With echoes of Calvino, Rushdie, and Saramago, combining science, theology, and moral philosophy, Mr g is a stunningly imaginative work that celebrates the tragic and joyous nature of existence on the grandest possible scale.
An imaginary re-creation of Einstein's discovery of the nature of time, this novel takes us through the young patent clerk's many dreams depicting compelling conceptions of time.
An extraordinarily accessible, illuminating chronicle of the great moments of scientific discovery in the 20th century, and an exploration into the minds of the remarkable men and women behind them. We know and read the literary masterpieces; how many of us have had the opportunity not only to read but understand the masterpieces of science that describe the very moment of discovery? The last century has seen an explosion of creativity and insight that led to breakthroughs in every field of science: from the theory of relativity to the first quantum model of the atom to the mapping of the structure of DNA, these discoveries profoundly changed how we understand the world and our place in it.
Alan Lightman tells the stories of two dozen breakthroughs made by such brilliant scientists as Einstein, Bohr, McClintock and Pauling, among others, drawing on his unique background as a scientist and novelist to reveal the process of scientific discovery at its greatest. He outlines the intellectual and emotional landscape of each discovery, portrays the personalities and human drama of the scientists involved, and explains the significance and impact of the work. Finally, he gives an unprecedented and exhilarating guided tour through each of the original papers.
From the bestselling author of Einstein's Dreams comes this harrowing tale of one man's struggle to cope in a wired world, even as his own biological wiring short-circuits. As Boston's Red Line shuttles Bill Chalmers to work one summer morning, something extraordinary happens. Suddenly, he can't remember which stop is his, where he works, or even who he is. The only thing he can remember is his corporate motto: the maximum information in the minimum time.
Bill's memory returns, but a strange numbness afflicts him. As he attempts to find a diagnosis for his deteriorating illness, he descends into a nightmarish tangle of inconclusive results, his company's manic frenzy, and his family's disbelief. Ultimately, Bill discovers that he is fighting not just for his body but also for his soul.