Alan Lightman

How can we merge the arts and sciences to better understand humanity?

Theoretical Physicist and Novelist

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Alan Lightman | Theoretical Physicist and Novelist
Lavin Exclusive Speaker

Both a theoretical physicist and a novelist, Alan Lightman bridges the gap between the worlds of art, the humanities, and science, and is an internationally recognized thinker on the meaning of science for understanding ourselves. He speaks elegantly about creative and scientific processes; the role of intuition and imagination; the work of Einstein; the meeting of science and faith; and the wonder and fragility of human nature—what it means to be alive. 

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.

 

“A scientist who is a humanist in the noblest sense of the word.”

The Los Angeles Times

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.

Speech Topics

Science
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 universes, 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.

 
Science
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.

 
Technology
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.

 
Authors
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.

 
Religion
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.

 
Science
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.