The Transcendent Brain
Spirituality in the Age of Science
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. Lightman’s most recent project is a three-part public TV miniseries based on his writings, titled SEARCHING: Our Quest for Meaning in the Age of Science. As the on-camera host, he explores questions of consciousness, humanity, and 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 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 illuminating language and crisp imagery aim to ignite a sense of wonder in any reader who’s ever pondered the universe, our world, and the nature of human consciousness.” (Publisher’s Weekly on Lightman’s Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine.)
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’s novel The Diagnosis, about the American obsession with information, speed, and money, was a finalist for the National Book Award in fiction. His 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. He is also the author of Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine and In Praise of Wasting Time. His book Probable Impossibilities is a collection of meditative essays on the possibilities—and impossibilities—of nothingness and infinity, and how our place in the cosmos falls somewhere in between. Kirkus called it “roaming, eye-opening, insightful, and literate collection of science writing . . . Complex science made accessible.” Lightman has also often been a guest on NPR and other radio programs, and was the inaugural recipient of Harvard’s Humanist Hub for “Humananism in Literature” award.
“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.
Albert Einstein is a household name, but few of us know his story. Author and physicist Alan Lightman has written extensively on Einstein and his work, including his international bestseller Einstein’s Dreams, which has been translated into 30 languages.
In this lecture, Lightman discusses the life of Albert Einstein, using some of the personal letters Einstein himself wrote. He explores Einstein’s spirit of discovery and creativity, and illuminates the legacy of his work and ideas. Lightman then presents the theory of relativity in layman’s terms, with colorful illustrations, prompting us to think about science not as an abstract, faraway concept but as something that touches our lives in every way.
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.