Astro­nomic epiphany

The Guardian Weekly - - Books - Tim Adams

Search­ing for Stars on an Is­land in Maine by Alan Light­man Pan­theon, 226pp

Alan Light­man has made a unique ca­reer find­ing imag­i­na­tive ways to bridge the “two cul­tures” of sci­ence and hu­man­i­ties. A nov­el­ist and physi­cist, he was the first per­son to be awarded a joint pro­fes­sor­ship in lit­er­a­ture and astro­physics at Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy (MIT). He made his name as a writer of fic­tion with Ein­stein’s Dreams in 1993 – a lyri­cal se­ries of short sketches, each one an at­tempt at a dif­fer­ent un­der­stand­ing of time, and all rooted in the free­wheel­ing mind of Ein­stein as he grap­pled with rel­a­tiv­ity in Berne, Switzer­land, in 1905. That book drew com­par­isons with the play­ful philo­soph­i­cal fic­tion of Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges, and be­came an in­ter­na­tional best­seller. Since then, Light­man has pub­lished 17 books, each of which dwell in dif­fer­ent ways on life, the uni­verse and ev­ery­thing.

In a TED talk, Light­man drew the dis­tinc­tion be­tween his two habits of mind in this way: “The sci­en­tist tries to name things; the artist tries to avoid nam­ing things.” As he ap­proaches his three score and 10, the gap be­tween those two po­si­tions ap­par­ently be­comes ever more ur­gent to him. This lat­est cu­ri­ous book of es­says is an­other stab at re­solv­ing that uni­ver­sal ei­ther/or.

The start­ing point for its re­flec­tions is a kind of epiphany Light­man ex­pe­ri­enced 12 months or so ago. For many years, he has spent his sum­mers and, oc­ca­sion­ally, parts of his win­ters, on a tiny is­land off the coast of Maine. Six fam­i­lies have houses on it, each with their own jetty. By ne­ces­sity all the fam­i­lies have be­come at home in boats. One clear night, Light­man was chug­ging out to the is­land alone when he de­cided to turn off his en­gine and his lights and just drift. He lay on his back and gazed at the “sky vi­brat­ing with stars”, and not for the first time in his life ex­pe­ri­enced a kind of in­tense weight­less­ness, a pow­er­ful sense of eter­nity, a loss of self; he sug­gests when he re­turned from that Wordswor­thian men­tal jour­ney he had no idea how long he had been trav­el­ling.

This ex­pe­ri­ence in­evitably got him think­ing, some­what in the man­ner of the star-gaz­ing an­cients or vi­sion­ary Ro­man­tics. The book, a se­ries of frag­ments of phi­los­o­phy of mind, and in­sights into the cre­ative lives of the great sci­en­tists, and at­ten­tion to the ma­te­ri­al­ity of the uni­verse in both its largest and small­est com­po­nents, is the re­sult of those wan­der­ing med­i­ta­tions.

Light­man’s dis­cur­sive method is full of in­sight into some of the mys­ter­ies of the phys­i­cal world, as well as the physics of mys­tery. He uses his own bi­og­ra­phy – the lit­tle sci­ence lab he cre­ated in his bed­room closet in Mem­phis, Ten­nessee, aged 12 – to demon­strate an in­tact sense of wonder at what we know and what we don’t. At the heart of his me­di­a­tion is this neat for­mu­la­tion of the bound­aries of sci­en­tific un­der­stand­ing: “The in­fi­nite is not merely a lot more of the fi­nite.”

Light­man has a sym­pa­thetic gift for recre­at­ing the leaps of faith in sci­en­tific ad­vance. At the same time, he feels him­self in a won­der­land of shift­ing scales. He maps out the heav­ens, con­cen­trates on the veins of a leaf, tries to fathom the evo­lu­tion of the hum­ming­bird, the ve­rac­ity of Van Gogh’s Starry Night, and re­turns of­ten to the thrilling chutz­pah of Ein­stein re­think­ing time and space. Does he end up much the wiser af­ter this lat­est record of at­ten­tion to his pat­tern-mak­ing mind? Of course not. Does that make the ef­fort of track­ing his progress worth­while? Of course.

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